As budget cuts loom, low-risk undocumented immigrants freed

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A young Honduran immigrant — in Minnesota illegally but seeking asylum in the United States — couldn’t believe her good fortune Tuesday afternoon when she was released from jail in Sherburne County after 22 months detention.

Stepping outside, she marveled at the snow and worried about sunburn.

In an under-the radar-move to prepare for federal budget cuts scheduled to kick in Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are releasing several hundred people from immigrant detention facilities around the country this week. It’s not clear how many will be released in Minnesota.

“They told her, ‘It’s very expensive to hold you here,’’’ explained the Honduran woman’s attorney, Sarah Brenes of The Advocates for Human Rights, translating her clients’ words from Spanish to English. The woman talked only if we did not use her name.

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The releases were unexpected.

Hearing unsubstantiated reports people were being released from detention, John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in St. Paul, messaged some 300 immigration attorneys in Minnesota and the region Tuesday morning asking his colleagues what they knew. Several answered they’d seen their clients released.

“Who knew the sequester could be good news?’’ said Keller, referring to the across-the-board budget cuts Congress has put in place in an effort to come up with a deficit reduction plan.

Limited resources

The Huffington Post last night was among the first to report the releases, which began Monday. According to Huffington, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen had this to say: “In order to make the best use of our limited detention resources in the current fiscal climate and to manage our detention population under current congressionally mandated levels, ICE has directed field offices to review the detained population to ensure it is in line with available funding.”

MinnPost confirmed this afternoon of the release of low-risk undocumented immigrants.

Gillian Christensen, ICE’s deputy press secretary, issued this statement: “As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget.’’

Consequently, the statement goes on to say, ICE reviewed “several hundred cases” resulting in people being placed “on methods of supervision less costly than detention.”

By that, we’re advised, undocumented immigrants will be under supervised release and must periodically report in person to immigration officials and may be electronically monitored.

All, however, “remain in removal proceedings,’’ the statement says, stressing those released are not a threat to public safety.

After the unexpected release of her client, Brenes was working to help the woman, a mother of three, find a place to sleep tonight. The woman, convicted of illegal re-entry to the United States, had finished serving time for the federal criminal charge and was being held as an undocumented immigrant while she waits for a decsion on her request for asylum. She must report to ICE officials Wednesday.

Cost of detention

With hundreds of detained immigrants being released this week, the public is understandably asking: Who are these immigrants? Why are they detained? What is the cost of detention?

About 380,000 people were held in immigration custody in 2009 under the supervision of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion, according to Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of organizations working for immigration reform and immigrant protection that is based in Washington, D.C.

According to that group:

  • Immigrants in detention include families and undocumented as well as documented immigrants. Some are survivors of torture or asylum seekers and others victims of human trafficking.
  • Some are held in DHS detention centers but about two-thirds are held in space DHS rents in more than 312 county and city jails nationwide.
  • About half have no criminal record while others have served time and are detained for immigration reasons.
  • Violation of immigration laws is a civil violation and if detained for that reason immigrants go through a process to determine whether they have a right to stay in this country.
  • The average cost of detention with room and board is about $122 per person per day, though less expensive alternatives such as reporting and electric monitoring — which ICE reports its doing now with released immigrants — can be $12 a day.

The National Immigration Forum for the New York Times estimated last year detainee-holding costs range from $122 to $164 a day, with alternative monitoring costing from 30 cents to $14 per person per day.