WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta on Wednesday joined GOP lawmakers in criticizing the release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention centers in response to anticipated budget cuts should a sequester go into effect Friday.
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed on Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security began releasing illegal immigrants being held in immigration jails across the country.
“This is the height of audacity,” Barletta, R-Hazleton, said in a prepared statement released Wednesday morning. “The alleged cuts have yet to kick in, and the president is already taking drastic measures. To release illegal immigrants is to attempt to avoid his responsibility to administer his budget. This is irresponsible and reckless.”
According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant facing deportation jailed. In a report on immigration detention costs last year, the advocacy group said costs for supervised release can range from about 30 cents to $14 a day.
President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said on Wednesday the decision to release what he described as “a few hundred” of the 30,000 illegal immigrants in federal detention was made by “career officials” at the immigration agency. He said the immigrants who were released were still subject to deportation.
“All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings,” Carney said. “Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.”
Barletta, however, said the House Judiciary Committee received reports that among those released were immigrants who had been arrested on charges of theft and drunken driving as well as documented gang members and those arrested for but not convicted of violent crimes. “These are not low-level criminals to me,” he said.
Other Republican lawmakers have decried the jail releases as well. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, sent a letter Wednesday to ICE Director John Morton asking who was released and what was being done to keep track of them.
“This decision reflects the lack of resource prioritization within the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is indicative of the department’s weak stance on national security,” McCaul wrote.
Barletta, who garnered international attention as mayor of Hazleton for successfully pushing council to pass a law punishing businesses and landlords who employed or harbored illegal immigrants, also said he finds it “hard to believe that anyone in the department would give the OK to release criminals onto the streets and into our neighborhoods without running it up the chain.”
He said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and other deparment heads were notified in January that they should prepare to make sequester cuts without compromisiing their core missions.
“Surely, one must question Secretary Napolitano’s judgment if the best cost-cutting measure she could find is to release thousands of criminals onto our streets. This is not a low-level decision. I find it hard to believe that the secretary was not made aware of it, and if she was, that she didn’t brief the White House,” Barletta said.
Barletta said that if President Barack Obama wasn’t aware of the plan, he “needs to be in Washington more and not out campaigning. It seems to be a pattern with the White House being uninformed, whether it’s Benghazi or the Department of Homeland Security. It seems like the horses are running loose around here.”
As of last week, DHS held an average daily population of 30,733 in its jails.
Napolitano earlier this week warned that DHS might not be able to afford to maintain the 34,000 immigration jail beds required by Congress and that mandatory budget cuts would hurt the department’s core missions.
“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester as without sequester,” Napolitano had said, adding that the impact would be “like a rolling ball. It will keep growing.”
Also on Tuesday, Gary Mead, the senior Homeland Security Department official in charge of arresting and deporting illegal immigrants, announced his retirement in an email to his staff, the Associated Press learned on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Gillian Christensen, said there was no connection between Mead’s announcement to his staff and the decision to release the illegal immigrants. She said Mead had told senior leaders in the agency several weeks ago that he planned to retire.
Mead said Tom Homan will succeed him as acting executive associate director.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.