The new ICE move comes as Republicans weigh how far to go on agreeing to a "path to citizenship" as part of a looming immigration reform package. Both Democrats and Republicans, in fact, have used the detainee release for political posturing in the larger immigration debate.
Critics say the release shows that the Obama administration is not willing to enforce the existing laws that target undocumented immigrants – which for the critics could be an immigration-reform deal breaker. Others counterargue that the administration's actions actually show it's serious. Not only has the White House beefed up border security, they say, but President Obama has also deported more illegal immigrants per year than has any other president.
At least part of the detainee release has to do with the number of detention beds. A congressional funding mandate says that 34,000 detention beds need to be filled (with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the US). But a day before ICE announced the detainee release, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano talked about reducing the number of detention beds.
Indeed, ICE officials have begun whittling down the number of beds without congressional approval. Facing the sequester, ICE officials plan to draw down to as few as 26,000 beds by March 31, the Associated Press said after its review of DHS records. The savings is about $150 per night, per bed.
Critics see in the bed reduction a willful ignorance of Congress. And such disregard is an ongoing point of contention and distrust between especially House Republicans and Mr. Obama. But according to the administration, the release was simply an acceleration of the discretionary decisions already being made by ICE – weighing detainees' flight risks and criminal past against available bed space.