Hours before President Obama authorized the government to begin cutting $85 billion from federal accounts on Friday, a newswire revealed that the Homeland Security Department had released from jails over 2,000 illegal immigrants facing deportation, and was planning to set free 3,000 more this month to deal with the "sequester."
The U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the agency that runs the detention facilities, released around 1,000 illegal immigrants from its jails across the country each week beginning at least Feb. 15, The Associated Press reported.
The newswire says it reviewed internal budget documents, which said field offices had reported more than 2,000 immigrants freed before the plan was shut down following intense criticism this week.
ICE held an average daily population of 30,733 in its jails as of last week, and the plan was to reduce it to 25,748 by the end of this month, according to the documents. Immigrants were released in many states, including Arizona, California, Georgia and Texas.
The Obama administration admitted earlier this week that illegal immigrants had been released under the budget-savings process, but put the figure at just a few hundred – significantly lower than what the AP has exposed.
The revelation comes as Obama is being accused of seeking to aggravate the effect of the budget sequester or automatic cuts. It is also raising questions if immigrants were being held by the administration arbitrarily, and if dangerous criminals were among those released.
ICE spokesman Brian Hale still claims that only several hundred illegal immigrants have been released, citing daily fluctuations in the number of detainees. "Beyond that normal movement, and as fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget and placed several hundred individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention," he said in a statement Friday. "At this point, we don't anticipate additional releases, but that could change."
The White House, which had not commented on the AP report until early Saturday, claimed earlier this week that it had not been consulted on the release of the immigrants. White House spokesman Jay Carney blamed it on career ICE officials, while maintaining that the immigrants freed were "low-risk, noncriminal detainees."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she regretted the manner in which the immigrants were released. "Do I wish that this all hadn't been done all of a sudden and so that people weren't surprised by it? Of course," she told ABC News on Thursday.
Despite their release, the immigrants will face deportation in due course and need to appear for court hearings.
The HSD official in charge of arrests and deportations, Gary Mead, reportedly announced his retirement on Tuesday, the day the Obama administration admitted to having released a few hundred immigrants. He will quit in April.
Republicans, who say the cuts will not be as devastating as the president predicts, have accused the White House of trying to exacerbate the sequester's effect.
"The last thing you would do to meet a budget cut of this size would be to voluntarily undertake actions that undermine the rule of law and endanger the public safety," Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama said this week. "It is clear the administration is using the sequester as a convenient excuse to bow to political pressure from the amnesty groups, as it did with its unilateral decision to confer legal status on millions who are not lawfully present."
The Obama administration is also being accused of taking unnecessary steps to reduce U.S. Middle East security and disrupt air travel.
Washington Post investigative journalist Bob Woodward told MSNBC on Wednesday that Obama's decision to recall an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf due to the cuts was "a kind of madness."
"Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?' Or George W. Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not going to invade Iraq because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need' or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters,' as he did when Clinton was president because of some budget document?" Woodward said. "Under the Constitution, the President is Commander-In-Chief and employs the force. And so we now have the President going out because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country. That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."
In a story for his newspaper last week, Woodward charged Obama of having "moved the goal posts" in asking for new revenue through tax reform as a substitute to the automatic spending cuts. The journalist was threatened by top White House economic adviser Gene Sperling before the story was published, according to Politico.
Meanwhile, Obama on Friday signed an order authorizing the government to begin cutting $85 billion from federal accounts, officially enacting across-the-board reductions that he failed to avert.
Negotiation over the automatic cuts failed as the president appeared determined to replace it with tax increases and cuts spread out over time, while Republicans rejected any plan that included tax revenue. Active military personnel and anti-poverty and low-income assistance programs are largely protected from the cuts.