Budget Ax Cuts Funds for Immigration Detention

Congress may not have intended it, but this was hardly unforeseeable: immigration policy has been swept up in the federal budget impasse.

The sequester – those massive across-the-board budget cuts that took effect earlier this month – was never supposed to happen. Congress designed this as a sort of doomsday machine that would kick in only if they failed to reach agreement on taxation and spending. The sequester was thought to be so onerous that no one in their right mind would let it happen. The logic behind this is reminiscent of the Cold War, when the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction induced Soviets and Americans alike to keep their finger off the button, for fear of bilateral Armageddon. They didn’t call it “MAD” for nothing, but at least it worked.

With the sequester, we haven’t been so lucky: Congress failed to resolve its budgetary disagreements, and now the doomsday machine is clanking to life. Though not a catastrophe of Cold War proportions, the sequester is potentially quite destructive in its own right. Slowly but surely, its effects are being felt in virtually every area of the federal government, its blunt budgetary ax falling indiscriminately on good programs and bad.

Among the sequester’s unintended consequences: the Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it had released more than 2,000 detainees from federal immigration holding centers, and plans to let another 3,000 go free in the course of the month. [See Report: Thousands of Illegal Immigrants Released, USA Today, 01.Mar.2013.] According to USA Today:

“The immigrants who were released still eventually face deportation and are required to appear for upcoming court hearings. But they are no longer confined in immigration jails, where advocacy experts say they cost about $164 per day per person. Immigrants who are granted supervised release – with conditions that can include mandatory check-ins, home visits and GPS devices – cost the government from 30 cents to $14 a day, according to the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates on behalf of immigrants.”

 At least conceptually, this is not a departure from current administration policy, which has focused enforcement resources on apprehending and deporting the most dangerous of the illegal immigrant population – those whose presence constitutes a grave threat to national security or public safety. The move nonetheless aroused the ire of anti-illegal immigration activists, who claimed the move was politically motivated. [See, e.g., Immigration Detainees’ Release Causes Outrage in Arizona, by Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times, 28.Feb.2013.]

Although politics and immigration are always intertwined, a few back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest there are legitimate, non-frivolous budgetary reasons for releasing low-risk detainees into supervised release programs. Reducing the detainee population by 5,000 people will save at least $150 per person, per day, given the difference between the cost of confinement – pegged at $164 per person, per day – and supervised release, which costs up to $14 per person, per day. That’s a savings of $750,000 a day, and $273,750,000 per year – nothing to sneeze at. As of late February, USA Today reports, ICE “held an average daily population of 30,733 in its jails.” At $164 dollars a head, per day, the cost of housing all of these detainees would exceed $1.8 billion a year.

Whether releasing that many immigration detainees makes sense from a policy standpoint is at least an arguable point – but from the fiscal standpoint it’s a no-brainer, given the cost of detention and the iron law of sequestration. Perhaps Congress will think twice next time before putting the nation on autopilot. And then again, perhaps not.

Copyright © 2013, MURTHY LAW FIRM. All Rights Reserved

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