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ICE frees hundreds of illegals

| Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 9:48 p.m.
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NOGALES, AZ - FEBRUARY 26: U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on February 26, 2013 in Nogales, Arizona. The newest generation of fencing allows Border Patrol agents to see through the fence and is harder to scale from the Mexican side. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

WASHINGTON — Days before mandatory budget cuts go into effect across the government, the Department of Homeland Security has started releasing illegal immigrants being held in detention facilities across the nation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said on Tuesday.

Spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said ICE has reviewed “several hundred cases” of immigrants and released them in the past week. They have been “placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release,” she said.

Republicans denounced the move as an attempt to frighten Americans into supporting President Obama's budget spending demands.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said it was “abhorrent” that Obama would release lawbreakers “to promote his political agenda on sequestration.” He suggested the release was merely a way to pressure Republicans to vote his way.

“By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives,” Goodlatte said. “It also undermines our efforts to come together with the administration and reform our nation's immigration laws.”

ICE press secretary Barbara Gonzalez said the agency is not dropping deportation proceedings against detainees who have been released. But because of the “fiscal uncertainty” hovering over the federal government, she said it was necessary to release them “to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget.”

“Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety,” she said.

The uncertainty Gonzalez referred to is the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts due to go into effect on Friday. Known as sequestration, the spending cuts are part of a 10-year, $1.2 trillion automatic decrease in federal spending put into effect by Congress and agreed to by Obama during negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling.

Obama is demanding tax hikes to avoid sequestration. Republicans are generally in favor of cutting the budget, but say sequestration hits the Defense Department too heavily, endangering national security. Obama has been denouncing the GOP this week for not being willing to raise taxes as well as cut spending.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are negotiating over an immigration bill that could put the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. Republicans insist that the border must be secured and immigration laws must be tightened before any such path is considered. Some say that the ICE release threatens to undermine those negotiations.

Advocates for illegal immigrants say the release shows that many of those incarcerated in ICE facilities don't need to be there.

Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona-based Puente Human Rights Movement, said advocates have long argued that people facing deportation proceedings should not be held in custody — apart from their families — while enduringlong waits to have their cases decided.

“They shouldn't stop at releasing hundreds,” Garcia said. “They should close the entire unnecessary immigration detention system.”

ICE officials say the average daily detainee population was about 30,773 people as of Feb. 23.

People released from custody can be placed in supervised programs, ICE said. They can be fitted with an ankle monitor or required to check in with ICE routinely.

The announcement was made as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned that the sequester cuts would affect “all core missions” of the department, including the loss of 5,000 border agents.

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