ICE Released Thousands of Detainees Before Sequestration

by Ryan Lovelace
Immigration report shows how a mass release of illegal immigrants foreshadowed the current crisis.

A new report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General reveals federal officials released thousands of detained illegal immigrants in advance of the budget sequestration in spring 2013 and may have foreshadowed Homeland Security’s reaction to the latest border crisis.

The OIG report says on February 22, 2013—one week before the budget reductions known as “sequestration” were expected to take effect—Immigration and Customs Enforcement executive leadership decided to reduce the average daily population detained at field offices across the country. The OIG adds that ICE has failed to improve its operations since that time, raising questions about how the agency has handled the influx of Central Americans this year.

Congress requires ICE to maintain an average daily population of 34,000 detainees, the report says, but existing appropriations would only cover 31,300 beds. The average daily population included 31,180 detainees two days prior to a decision by ICE’s executive leadership to reduce the population. ICE planned to release a net total of 1,644 illegal immigrants before sequestration took effect. The report says ICE ultimately released 2,211 detainees before sequestration.

It is difficult to determine how ICE field offices decided to release more illegal immigrants than the targeted amount, but the OIG report found that ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers sent field offices disproportionate targeted reduction numbers. “For example, there was no written methodology to explain why ERO headquarters instructed 14 of the 24 field offices to reduce their populations, while it instructed the other 10 field offices to target a number higher than their current detention population,” the report states.

All 24 field offices released detainees, including the ten field offices instructed to hold a greater number of people in detention. Four other field offices across the country appear to have released more individuals than instructed, according to the report. The St. Paul field office was targeted to release just two people, but chose instead to release 49, according to the report. “ERO officials said ICE executive leadership instructed them several times to increase detention populations and then release detainees,” the report states.

The OIG declined to answer questions about its findings. ICE spokespersons also chose not to answer questions, but did provide a written statement that says in part, “The individuals released in February 2013 remained in removal proceedings and continue to be monitored individually by ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) deportation officers to determine the appropriate level of supervised release for each specific case as their cases progress though the immigration and federal courts.”

While ICE’s statement maintains that it individually monitored the released illegal immigrants as they awaited trial, the report states, “ICE executive leadership did not anticipate questions about the detainee releases and did not instruct ERO field offices to track the releases.” Only after releasing detainees did ICE executive leadership begin asking ERO for “detailed information on the releases,” according to the OIG. Furthermore, the OIG report notes that ICE executive leadership chose not to notify ICE attorneys about the releases.

The report also states that ICE did not notify DHS’ secretary about its plans to release the illegal immigrants as a remedy for the looming spending caps. But the report excludes any statement indicating whether ICE informed the White House of its decision. In the course of conducting its report, the OIG says, it found “no evidence ICE sought or received guidance or directives about the timing or nature of the detainee releases from the Executive Office of the President.” Ten days before sequestration took effect, President Obama said “Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go.” In February 2013, before sequestration even began, ICE released 617 convicted criminals. Cities such as Denver, New York, San Francisco, and St. Paul all released more convicted criminal illegal aliens than people labeled “non-criminal,” according to the OIG report.

That spring, a little more than a year before the latest border crisis began, ICE decided to release thousands of illegal immigrants—including hundreds of convicted criminals—without fully informing then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano of its plans or seeking guidance from the Executive Office of the President. “Since the February 2013 releases, ICE has not improved communications or transparency with key stakeholders,” the OIG report says.

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.