WASHINGTON - A week before mandatory budget cuts go into effect across the government, the Department of Homeland Security has started releasing illegal immigrants being held in immigration jails across the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Tuesday.
Hundreds of undocumented immigrants were released in Arizona.
ICE officials confirm to ABC15 that 303 illegal immigrants from four Arizona facilities have been set free so far.
Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman, said ICE has reviewed "several hundred cases" of immigrants being held in jails around the country and released them in the last week. They have been "placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release," she said.
"Do you really think that people here waiting for deportation and given a pass will come back to court," said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in response to the release.
Arpaio went on to tell ABC15 he wasn't surprised by the government's move, but was disappointed.
"My deputies and ICE agents risk their lives everyday to arrest those who cross that border illegally," said Arpaio while sitting in his office.
Christensen said the agency's "priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety."
Tuesday's announcement of jail releases is the first tangible impact of the looming budget cuts for DHS.
"Why can't they wait (for the budget cuts), they should wait," said Arpaio. "I think they can keep a little money in the kitty to pay for a few of these people, if they say they're paying a lot of money feed them bologna sandwiches like we do."
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer issued a statement Tuesday afternoon expressing her anger at the release.
"I'm appalled to learn the U.S.. Department of Homeland Security has begun to release hundreds of illegal aliens from custody, the first of potentially thousands to soon be freed under the guise of federal budget cuts," said Brewer in a news release.
The Governor continued, "This represents a return to exactly the kind of catch-and-release procedures that have long made a mockery of our country's immigration system."
The Obama administration has been issuing dire warnings about the impact of the sequestration and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at the White House Monday that across-the-board cuts would impact the department's core operations, including border security and airport screening operations.
She also warned that DHS might not be able to afford to keep the 34,000 immigration jail beds mandated by Congress.
"I don't think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester as without sequester," said Napolitano, adding that the impact would be "`like a rolling ball. It will keep growing."
According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant facing deportation jailed. In a report on immigration detention costs last year the advocacy group said costs for supervised release can range from about 30 cents to $14 a day.
The administration asked for about $1.96 billion for immigration jail operations in the last budget. It amounts to about $5.4 million a day, according to the National Immigration Forum's report.
Christensen said Tuesday that released immigrants will still face deportation proceedings.
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