Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano admitted she was surprised by her department’s release of an undisclosed number of low-risk immigrant detainees in an attempt to save money before the federal budget sequestration took hold last week. But the episode, held up by some commentators as a sign of the unpredictable consequences of arbitrary cuts, actually raises more fundamental questions about immigration enforcement.
The first question is why lower-level bureaucrats felt empowered on their own to release detainees who were asylum-seekers, foreign nationals who overstayed their visas, or illegal immigrants who committed minor offenses. As a simple matter of law enforcement, the department should have a clear hierarchy of decision-making, and the decisions about which types of illegal immigrants should be detained and released should be made at a high level.
Meanwhile, the sequestration may have taken effect on Friday, but the necessity to cut back on immigration enforcement shouldn’t be felt for several months. The preemptive release of illegal immigrants, who are held at about $122 a day, wasn’t strictly necessary to offset the budget cuts mandated by sequestration. So why did these lower-level officials feel the need to release detainees even before the sequester took effect?
But there’s a third question that may be more significant than the other two: Why were these detainees being held in the first place? President Obama has repeatedly avowed that only the “worst of the worst” — illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes — would be subjected to detainment as opposed to other legal procedures. Nonetheless, as the Globe’s Maria Sacchetti has reported, many low-risk immigrants continue to be detained despite Obama’s orders. Over 30,000 immigrants are currently being kept in a system that utilizes local and private facilities, thereby making incarceration far more expensive than the alternatives.
The threat of sequestration led to a series of events that have exposed the necessity for greater oversight on immigration enforcement. These questions about immigration enforcement won’t go away when the budget crisis is resolved. Napolitano needs to demand some answers.