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The pre-sequester illegal immigrant release: Is Obama playing politics?
Immigration officials have released hundreds of pending deportees, citing sequestration-related belt tightening. Republicans say they smell a rat
President Obama speaks during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding on Feb. 26.
President Obama speaks during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding on Feb. 26. Alex Wong/Getty Images
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he Republicans arguing that the upcoming $85 billion in cuts to the federal budget are no big deal are facing their first big test. On Tuesday, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) confirmed that it has released hundreds of immigrants awaiting deportation trials over the past few days to prepare for the sequestration slated to kick in March 1. "As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget," explained ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen.

The released detainees are "noncriminals and other low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories," ICE says, and they will still be monitored through mandatory visits, ankle bracelets, or other supervised release while they await their court dates. But some Republicans smell a rat. "It's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. And even as he was urging senators to collectively get "off their ass" and pass a sequester-replacement bill, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told CBS News it is "very hard for me to believe that they can't find cuts elsewhere in their agency."

I frankly think this is outrageous, and I'm looking for more facts, but I can't believe that they can't find the kind of savings they need out of the department short of letting criminals go free.... I think that the administration is trying to play games — play games with the American people, scare the American people. This is not, this is not leadership. [CBS News, via Politico]

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department includes ICE, issued a sort of prebuttal on Monday. "Look, we're doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester, but there's only so much I can do," she said. A sudden 5.3 percent cut in the budget is a lot of money, and "I'm supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration. How do I pay for those? We want to maintain 22,000-some odd Border Patrol agents. I got to be able to pay their salaries."

But even supporters of easing America's immigration laws say the mass release of detained immigrants is "unusual," especially "as the sequester won't even take effect until March 1," says Suzy Khimm at The Washington Post. Politically motivated or not, "immigration advocates welcomed the news, having long been frustrated with a detention policy they consider draconian and wasteful." The 30,773 people in ICE detention are each costing the government between $122 and $164 a day, according to the National Immigration Forum, and alternative, effective forms of detention, like ankle bracelets, cost between 30 cents and $14 a day. "It shouldn't take a manufactured crisis in Washington to prompt our immigration agencies to actually take steps towards using government resources wisely or keeping families together," said Carolina Canizales at the immigration reform group United We Dream.

None of that will stop Republicans from insisting "that this is some kind of publicity stunt by Obama to make 'his' sequester look bad to put pressure on the GOP to cave into his 'unreasonable' demands," says Justin Rosario at Addicting Info. Well, welcome to "the Law of Unintended Consequences." The GOP "gives a lot of lip service to 'smarter government spending' as well as cutting government spending," and you might think they'd applaud Obama doing both in one fell swoop. But of course immigration hits a nerve with Republicans. They played with fired by pushing for big spending cuts. They're getting burned.

The illegal immigrant release is "a great political move on the part of the White House," says Mark Krikorian at National Review. Yes, Obama "achieves two goals in one fell swoop," agrees Allahpundit at Hot Air, "turning up the heat on the GOP to cave on cuts, yes, but also tossing the amnesty fans in his base a bone by reducing border enforcement." But it could come back to bite him if it scuttles the delicate negotiations on an immigration overhaul bill. Still, Obama's big preemptive strike "makes me more enthusiastic about the sequester, just because now I'm curious to see how derelict he's willing to be in his duties to in the name of putting political pressure on the GOP. Next up: Suspending TSA checkpoints at America's airports, maybe?"

"On its face, this is a brazen, outrageous move, indeed," says James Joyner at Outside the Beltway. But when you read the details, you have to wonder why Obama didn't just do this earlier. His administration has drastically ramped up the number of deportees, and some of them spend years in detention, in what amounts to legal limbo.

This isn't a "supervised" release; it's a supervised release. The use of electronic monitoring and other safeguards actually makes good sense as an alternative to incarceration for all sorts of minor criminals, much less those waiting to adjudicate immigration disputes. It's massively cheaper and more productive. Not to mention less cruel. [Outside the Beltway]

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