Low-risk, non-violent immigrants released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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," SA's GOP rep told the E-N last week. "The (Obama) administration is either incompetent and unable to prioritize spending, or reckless. Neither is acceptable."
News broke last week that ICE released "several hundred" low-risk detainees from its detention centers nationwide to brace for the federal spending cuts that kicked in Friday amid partisan gridlock. ICE says none of those released have been convicted of violent crimes.
Conservatives like Smith, rightly or wrongly, have claimed the Administration overhyped the consequences of so-called sequestration, issuing dire predictions when the cuts could be spread out in less damaging fashion. Ironically for Smith, though, ICE is cutting exactly where it makes most sense — releasing immigrant detainees that don't need to be incarcerated.
Over the past decade, money spent to jail immigrants has skyrocketed as the system grew from about 7,500 to 33,000 detention beds, costing taxpayers around $5.5 billion, even though cheaper options exist. Gary Mead, ICE's man in charge of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants, told the Current 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 facility run by private prison company GEO Group specifically designed to house the lowest-risk detainees, like border crossers and asylum seekers who would pose little to no flight risk if put in less-costly monitoring programs.
Texas actually offers the feds another model for how to handle the immigrant detention system. In September, the Current wrote about how Scott Henson, the state's much-followed criminal justice guru who blogs at Grits For Breakfast, moderated a panel of experts and immigration reform advocates at Austin's LBJ school. The panel included former GOP state Rep. Jerry Madden, who prior to this session chaired the House Corrections Committee. Madden insisted the feds could save money following Texas' path: by limiting detention of low-risk, non-violent offenders.
Fiscal reality turned around Texas' incarceration rates, pushing state leaders to opt for "right-on-crime" strategies (like curbing probation time, funding alternatives like DWI and drug courts) instead of hemorrhaging a billion dollars to build more prisons.
ICE, until now, could spend as much as it wanted on immigrant detention. On his blog, Henson wrote that the sequester forces Congress to prioritize spending, proving there are cheaper options for keeping tabs on undocumented immigrants while they wait for the backlogged immigration courts to process their cases.
Smith may chide that the Obama Administration is "incompetent and unable to prioritize spending." But as Henson aptly put it, "prioritizing spending is precisely what's going on here … for once."