Administration Unlawfully Freed Thousands of Illegal Immigrants
Policy + Politics

Administration Unlawfully Freed Thousands of Illegal Immigrants

REUTERS/ Rick Loomis/Pool

The continuation of the political fight over how to deal with the crisis on the Southern border was always going to be ugly. But a new report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General ensures that when Congress returns from recess next month, the discussion will descend to new depths of acrimony.

The report, requested by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ), confirmed that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, in early 2013, unlawfully released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants from custody, including more than 600 hundred who had criminal convictions, into the communities across the U.S.

Related: Most of the 51,000 Child Immigrants Are with Their US Families

The IG found that because of inadequate funding, ICE did not have the resources to maintain the number of “beds” in detention facilities that the law requires. Congressional appropriations do not cover all of the beds that ICE is required to provide, meaning that the agency must find other means of paying for the extra space.

Faced with a surge in the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border and a budget that not only did not increase year-over-year but was also facing cuts from sequestration, ICE officials decided to start letting people go. This, as the IG report notes, was illegal. Additionally, ICE officials did not inform their superiors at the Department of Homeland Security, or within the Executive Office of the President.

The IG reports that, while ICE should not have released the detainees, the agency did take steps to identify candidates for release who were not deemed a danger to the public. Not all immigrants with a criminal history are necessarily dangerous. For example, criminal charges are often filed against immigrants who try to re-enter the country after being deported. 

However, that bit of nuance is unlikely to make it into the talking points of lawmakers who are generally opposed to anything that can be viewed as a relaxation of the immigration laws.

Related: US Immigration Courts’ Dirty Secret

“It is baffling how an agency charged with homeland security and immigration enforcement would knowingly release hundreds of illegals with criminal histories,” said Coburn in a release. “In this single action, ICE undermined its own credibility, the rule of law, and the safety of Americans and local law enforcement.”

“This report confirms the Obama administration’s lack of coherent leadership on immigration policy,” McCain said. “The safety of our border communities shouldn’t be put at risk because ICE officials decide to release detainees—many with criminal records—in order to solve their budget problems without waiting to see if they could obtain more funding.”

The IG’s finding that ICE leadership essentially tried to cover up their own poor planning by failing to let more senior administration officials know what was going on will likely continue to be ignored by opponents of immigration reform in favor of a storyline suggesting that “the Obama administration” allowed the release of illegal immigrants, some of whom had criminal records.

The resulting attacks will, in a strictly technical sense, be right. But they won’t do much to solve the problem on the border.

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