The releases are designed to cut the number of illegal aliens in ICE's detention system, which is budgeted to hold 19,444 detainees, but has housed thousands more for most of the fiscal year. "Currently we are exceeding the level our resources can support nationwide," wrote Victor Cerda, ICE's acting director of detention and removals, in a June 10 memorandum to regional detention officials.
To ease the strain on the system, Cerda told ICE managers to lower the number of aliens coming into the detention system, while releasing others now being held in federal and local jails. "Discretion and financial constraints shall be considered when deciding whether to accept nonmandatory aliens for detention," he wrote.
Because certain illegal aliens must be detained by law-including those charged with aggravated felonies-Cerda's directive affects how ICE treats aliens charged with lesser offenses, such as simple assault. These aliens are detained at ICE's discretion; generally, about 15 percent of all aliens in the detention system are "nonmandatory" detainees, according to Anthony Tangeman, a former director of detention and removals at ICE.
In ICE's New Orleans district, which encompasses Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi, officials are releasing aliens that are not required to be held by law. Aliens are let go with orders to appear at deportation hearings.
Illegal aliens are being released in other regions as well. In ICE's Philadelphia district, which includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware, officials released 77 aliens last week, according to Thomas Hogan, warden at Pennsylvania's York County Prison, which houses several ICE detainees.
Nationwide, the number of ICE detainees is dropping. On June 25, ICE had 21,610 illegal aliens in its detention system, down from nearly 23,000 on June 14, according to Russ Knocke, an ICE spokesman. Knocke said ICE may not trim its detainee population to the 19,444 level. "It might not necessarily mean getting down to that hard number," he said. "It might mean we find other ways to manage within budget."
Homeland Security Department officials describe Cerda's directive as a sensible approach to help ICE stay within its budget limits. "This is routine management," said one official. Knocke said ICE still is detaining aliens that pose a threat to the community, and added that some of those let go are being monitored by electronic ankle bracelets and other alternatives to detention.
But the releases have raised eyebrows in Congress, and angered some agents. "It's sad because the people affected are in the local immigrant community," said an ICE agent in the New Orleans district. Jim Turner, D-Texas, ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, mentioned the releases in a June 25 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
ICE has dealt with an overflowing detention system before-the agency ended fiscal 2003 holding more aliens than it was budgeted for, but officials diverted funds from other programs to pay for the excess. By shelving other projects, ICE freed up enough funds to avoid any releases last year, said David Venturella, a former ICE detention official.
The demand for detention space is up because of a surge in immigration related arrests, the result of programs such as the Arizona Border Control Initiative, a $10 million federal effort to crack down on alien smuggling along the Arizona-Mexico border. But as ICE and the Border Patrol have stepped up enforcement, they have put more aliens into a detention system that has had a static budget for two years. "There's a lot of pressure on the [detention] program from apprehending agencies to detain people," said former ICE official Tangeman.
Venturella said the Border Patrol and ICE's Office of Investigations need to prioritize arrests to stem the flow of new aliens into the system. "They control the intake, Detention and Removals does not," he said.
In a June 24 memorandum, Marcy Forman, acting director of ICE investigations, told ICE special-agents-in-charge to contact detention officials "during the earliest possible stage of planning for an operation," to let them know how much detention space they will need.
But Venturella said this guidance was inadequate. "When a [special-agent-in-charge] reads this, they say 'I guess I can still do operations, all I need to do is let [Detention] know,' " he said. "You should not initiate any new operation unless there are detention resources in place to support it."
Some ICE agents said they are curtailing enforcement. "We're laying off a lot of our lower-level jail cases," said the ICE agent in the New Orleans district. But Knocke denied any let-up in ICE investigations. "We continue to aggressively and proactively enforce immigration laws," he said.
On Wednesday, ICE agents arrested 14 criminal aliens in Graham and Burlington, N.C., who are eligible for deportation because of previous criminal convictions, according to an ICE news release.
Other officials said ICE is still arresting the same number of illegal aliens, but is increasing the use of bonds and other detention alternatives to ensure that aliens that are not detained will still show up at their immigration court hearings.