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Immigration detainee release under fire

By Mariano Castillo and Nick Valencia, CNN
updated 10:21 AM EST, Thu February 28, 2013
  • ICE's decision to release immigrant detainees because of budget cuts is being criticized
  • Republicans say the move puts the public at risk
  • White House says it had no input in the decision
  • An immigrant talks about his release

(CNN) -- At first, Miguel Hernandez thought it was a mistake, or worse, a joke.

The 19-year-old had been pulled over for failure to use his turn signal, but the fact that he is an undocumented immigrant landed him in a detention center in rural Georgia.

Hernandez was certain that deportation proceedings would follow soon, and was mulling over it when a guard brought some news: He was being released.

"I was walking and I was thinking, this is a joke. They probably got confused with another guy or something," Hernandez said.

More likely, Hernandez was one of hundreds of undocumented immigrants released from detention because of looming budget cuts set to take effect Friday absent congressional action.

The package of forced budget cuts, known as sequestration, will mean $85 billion of government-wide cuts.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decision to move detainees to less costly supervision options was met with backlash from Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of using scare tactics to win a political battle.

Miguel Hernandez was released from an immigration detention center in Georgia as federal budget cuts loomed.
Miguel Hernandez was released from an immigration detention center in Georgia as federal budget cuts loomed.

"It's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, said. "By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives."

But the White House had no input on the plan, spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

The decision was made by career ICE employees, an administration official told CNN. The move was made because the agency was preparing its year-end budget and had to take budget cuts into consideration, the official said.

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An exact number of released detainees has not been released; ICE characterized it as "several hundred." The population of immigration detainees is currently about 30,700.

Those who have been released are non-criminals or low-risk offenders without serious criminal histories, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said.

"Detainees with serious criminal histories are a detention priority and have not been released," she said.

Another ICE official reiterated that all of those released remain in deportation proceedings, released on an order of supervision.

Some of those released will be on intensive supervision, such as ankle monitors, while others will just have weekly check-ins with an ICE officer, the official said.

Hernandez, the young man who was released in Georgia, can't know for sure that he was released because of budget cuts. But he does fit the category of minor offenders, and was released at the same time as dozens of other detainees.

Those being released alongside Hernandez on Sunday were confused about what was happening. Some detainees who had bonds as high as $25,000 were being told they were bonded and released.

Hernandez said he believes some of those released with him are repeat offenders who have been previously deported.

Most were given a paper with a court date, but not Hernandez. He has been waiting for his court date to be mailed to him.

Another congressman, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, wrote a letter to ICE Director John Morton demanding accountability.

He wants to know exactly how many detainees were released, and where, and the reason for each person's detention.

"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 said.

Planning for the detainee release began last Thursday, a senior administration official told CNN.

Hernandez said he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

"I don't know why this affects them -- I'm not a criminal," he said.

CNN's Jessica Yellin and Gustavo Valdes contributed to this report.

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