McCain presses Napolitano for answers on detainee release

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is pressing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for details on the recent supervised release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention centers.

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Many of the illegal immigrants released by the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) last week were placed on monitoring systems in McCain’s home state. As a senior member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, McCain asked Napolitano to provide him with more information about the mass release.

“Who within the ICE chain of command has the authority to decide to release a particular criminal alien and what is the written policy limiting the officer’s discretion?” McCain asked in his letter to Napolitano released on Friday.

“What plans are in place to ensure illegal aliens are being detained and we do not return to the days of Border Patrol ‘catch and release'? ”

Key Republicans in both chambers, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Senate Homeland Security appropriator Dan Coats (R-Ind.), have vowed to press the administration for more details on the ICE decision.

Napolitano and the White House have said the move was made by career agency officials in an effort to manage ICE’s resources ahead of the automatic spending cuts that went into effect last Friday with the sequestration deadline.

Napolitano is due to appear on Capitol Hill to testify about the state of the country's cybersecurity next week and will likely be pressed further on the detainee release.

And while ICE says publicly it is not planning to release any more illegal immigrants into the monitoring program at this time, the House Judiciary Committee released an internal ICE document this week that lays out the agency's plan to reduce its detainee population by 1,000 people each week while sequestration cuts are in effect.

A separate document obtained by the Associated Press last week stated that more than 2,000 illegal immigrants were released this week, far more than the “several hundred” ICE officials have said.

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed suspicions that the mass releases were a political attempt to spur lawmakers into reaching a sequestration deal. ICE said the decision was made by career officials in preparation for the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, which could limit the number of detainees ICE could pay to house.

It may prove to be tricky terrain for Republicans as they investigate the future of the release program, however. It was under President George W. Bush that the supervised release program — known as Alternatives to Detention (ATD) — first began. Moreover, it was Congress itself that first mandated the ATD program’s creation in fiscal year 2002.

According to ICE documents from 2009, the agency in 2004 and 2007 launched three ATD programs, which monitor the release of illegal immigrants still in deportation proceedings using a combination of GPS ankle monitors, telephonic reporting, and unannounced home visits. Of the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have been placed in the programs, less than 10 percent have run away or escaped, according to the 2009 report.

A DHS official told The Hill that career detention facility administrators release low-risk illegal immigrants into the less-costly supervision program on a nearly daily basis. Administrators make the call based on their budgetary and infrastructure constraints, without the need for sign-off approval from the White House, the official said.