As looming budget cuts have resulted in the release of some immigrant detainees, groups are arguing for the need for reform. (Photo/Getty Images )

Release of ICE detainees shines spotlight on immigration reform debate

After news came out that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had released some immigrant detainees who pose no security risks in anticipation of looming budget cuts, Latino groups called for a halt to deportations of undocumented families.

“It shouldn’t take a manufactured crisis in Washington to prompt our immigration agencies to actually take steps towards using government resources wisely or keeping families together,” said United We Dream’s Carolina Canizales.  Pablo Alvarado, Executive Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), said, “the president should move aggressively to reunite the families currently divided by detention not only to save money but to bring immigration policy back in line with cherished national values.”

ICE deputy press secretary Gillian Christensen released a statement today, saying that “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 budget.”  Christensen added that over the last week, ICE reviewed several hundred cases and placed some individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention.  “Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders,” Christensen stated.

But today, NDLON said this is an example of what they called the “ludicrous overreach of ICE,” and urged the passage of state TRUST Acts, which limit state law enforcement officials’ interactions with federal immigration authorities. Under a state’s TRUST Act, for example, local law enforcement could release undocumented immigrants despite requests from ICE for detention as long as the immigrants do not pose a serious threat. NDLON used the example of Ruth Montaño, a Bakersfield, California mother who was held for a week on an ICE “hold” after police responded to complaints of her barking dogs.  She is now facing deportation.

Connecticut Democratic State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield, who filed a TRUST bill in his state, said “we have created communities that  avoid interaction with police at all costs – what we have done with Secure Communities is make us less secure.”

But speaking today on the 10-year anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the government has made strides to focus on criminal deportations.  Napolitano said that previously, a college student who came to the U.S. with her parents was considered “the same priority as a drug smuggler,” but that this has changed. Napolitano said that 250,000 criminals had been deported the year before.

Napolitano said while illegal immigration was at a 40-year low and the border was more secure than ever, the notion that we can wall off or seal the border is a “pipe dream.”  Napolitano said the best way to limit the flow of undocumented immigrants was to have a legal framework for reform which took into account employer needs in the country.

Kristian Ramos, policy director for the 21st Century Border Initiative and Immigration Reform at the New Democratic Network, says this is worth keeping in mind as Senators and members of the House work on crafting a comprehensive immigration reform package.  “Immigration has always been a three-legged stool — enforcement, future flows of immigration and what to do about undocumented immigrants who are in the country. The notion that you can solve the two other problems by just focusing on enforcement alone is unrealistic,” he says.

Today the staffers of several Latino legislators working on immigration reform spoke at a NALEO conference, and said the bipartisan talks were progressing well.  “From my side of  the aisle I see a bigger willingness to speak on the issue – there is a very cordial atmosphere,” said Enrique Gonzalez III, special counsel to Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

Kerri Sherlock, chief counsel for Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, said the bipartisan group was covering issues in a fair way.  “We are hammering out the details,” said Sherlock.

The group said one thing to keep in mind is that immigration reform will be a centrist bill, and it will involve compromise.  Today President Obama met with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham.  “It was one of the best meetings I’ve had with the president, very good,” said Graham.  He said Senator McCain made a strong point about the border, and the president understood “the working components of it,” adding, “so I was frankly quite encouraged.”

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