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Lamar Smith angry that ICE is finally prioritizing spending





Low-risk, non-violent immigrant detainees released from ICE detention centers?! Cue the outrage from Congressman Lamar Smith in 3, 2  

“Spending cuts are no excuse for releasing thousands of criminal and illegal immigrants into our streets,” the local GOP rep told the daily. “The (Obama) administration is either incompetent and unable to prioritize spending, or reckless. Neither is acceptable.”

If he was either A) a true fiscal hawk or B) not a political opportunist willing bait his base by taking potshots whenever immigration's in the news (which he most definitely is), then Smith wouldn't be so incensed.

News broke this week that ICE has released “several hundred” (officials haven't divulged a true number) low-risk detainees from its detention centers nationwide to brace for federal spending cuts slated to kick in tomorrow. ICE says none of those released have been convicted of violent crimes.

Conservatives, rightly or wrongly, have criticized the Obama Administration for over-hyping the estimated fallout from so-called sequestration, issuing dire projections meant to scare Americans into supporting Obama's budget demands when, in reality, the cuts could be spread out in a much less damaging fashion. Ironically for Smith, though, ICE is cutting exactly where it should, releasing immigrant detainees that don't really need to be incarcerated.

Over the past decade money spent to jail immigrants has skyrocketed, from about 7,500 to some 33,000 detention beds, costing taxpayers around $5.5 billion. Meanwhile, private prison contractors now oversee about half of the nation's sprawling detention network, meaning for-profit prison companies like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have grown fat off the boom in immigrant detention.

Cheaper options exist. Gary Mead, ICE's man in charge of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants (who just announced his retirement), told us last year that ICE spends, on average, $122 per day to detain someone while alternatives, like the agency's ankle bracelet monitoring program, top out at around $15 per day.

Still, immigration policy has focused almost solely on detention. ICE last year opened its Karnes County “civil detention” center, a multi million dollar GEO Group-run facility specifically designed to house low-risk, non-violent detainees, like border crossers and asylum seekers who pose little to no flight risk if put in less-costly monitoring programs.

Perhaps there's a reason we've heard only quiet cheering from the immigrant rights community over the recent round of ICE releases. Because, in reality, these people are out of detention but not out of deportation proceedings. They'll just await their hearings in the backlogged immigration court system while under ICE supervision programs or ankle-bracelet monitoring.

Last year, I wrote about how Texas actually offers the feds another model for how to handle the immigrant detention system. In September Scott Henson, the much-followed Texas criminal justice guru who blogs at Grits For Breakfast, moderated a panel of experts and immigration reform advocates at Austin's LBJ School on how Texas could teach the feds how to reform the immigrant detention network.

Fiscal reality turned around Texas' incarceration rates. When state leaders in 2005 were presented with the choice of either lowering incarceration or building eight new prisons at a cost of $1 billion, they chose the former, implementing “right-on-crime” strategies that curbed probation time, shuffled funding to alternatives (like DWI and drug courts), and made the state parole board raise its parole rate.

At that forum, former GOP state Rep. Jerry Madden, who before this session chaired the House Corrections Committee, argued that the feds should save money by limiting detention of asylum seekers and low-risk, non-violent immigrants.

But unlike the fiscal reality (a balanced budget every year, no matter what) that birthed Texas' criminal justice reforms, Congress could keep pumping money into immigrant detention, just last year approving millions more for roughly 1,000 more private prison beds.

That is, until now. Like Texas before it, ICE is expecting to crash into a fiscal wall. And like Texas, it's  been forced to prioritize spending. On his blog, Henson writes that the sequester forces Congress to acknowledge that immigrant detention isn't free, and that there are cheaper options for keeping tabs on undocumented immigrants while they wait for the courts to process their cases.

Smith may chide that the Obama Administration is “incompetent and unable to prioritize spending,” but, as Henson puts it, “prioritizing spending is precisely what's going on here

for once.” – Michael Barajas

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