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Sequestration: How much does ICE save by releasing immigrant detainees?

An Orange County Sheriff's deputy keeps a watch over a group of immigration detainees in the medical and dental care area at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010.
An Orange County Sheriff's deputy keeps a watch over a group of immigration detainees in the medical and dental care area at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010.
Jae C. Hong/AP

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have shocked people on both sides of the immigrant debate this week by releasing hundreds of detainees from the agency's detention centers, a move officials say was done in light of "fiscal uncertainty" over looming federal budget cuts.

It's prompted criticism from the right, head-scratching from the left, and a flap over an Associated Press story tying the retirement of Gary Mead, ICE's Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations, to the detainee releases — a report the agency has called inaccurate.

At issue is cost, according to ICE. The idea is to save money as automatic federal spending cuts under what's known as sequestration are set to kick in Friday, to the tune of an expected $85 billion. ICE has provided no details as to how much of a shortfall the agency could face, although the cuts are expected to affect Homeland Security operations overall.

Just how costly is detention? ICE spends billions year after year detaining immigrants; in fiscal year 2012, the agency earmarked slightly over $2 billion for custody costs.

In fact, it costs more to house an immigrant who is facing or fighting deportation in a detention center than some Americans earn for a day's work. In 2011, ICE's average cost to detain one individual was $112.83 per day.

This is an agency-wide average, as detainees are housed in a patchwork of private, contracted facilities, which hold the majority of ICE detainees, and a few agency-owned ones. The daily cost — referred to as a "man-day" — is less at an agency-owned facility than a private one. Some estimates are higher: The National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization, estimated the daily cost per immigrant last year to be as high as $164.

Using the ICE average, let's suppose the agency releases 1,000 detainees, who run the gamut from undocumented immigrants to asylum seekers to deportable legal residents convicted of a crime who are appealing their deportation. At almost $113 per day, that's a daily savings to ICE of nearly $113,000.

The length of stay varies for detainees, some of whom are held for a few days, others for months as they appeal their cases. Let's say there are 1,000 detainees who stay a month, or 30 days, in custody. That's a cost to the agency of almost $3.4 million. 

In a statement explaining the detainee releases, ICE officials described how over the last week, the agency "has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention."

These "less costly" methods are what's referred to as supervised release, which for most detainees means release on their own recognizance, with the expectation that they'll show up for immigration hearings and check in with agency officials as required. Others deemed less trustworthy are monitored via electronic ankle bracelet.

Some GOP critics have characterized the detainee releases as a political move by the Obama administration in protest of the pending budget cuts, and a lack of congressional action to stop them. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, referred to them as "releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets." (ICE officials say only non-offenders or low-level offenders have been released, not people with serious criminal histories.)

On the flip side, while immigrant advocates haven't exactly criticized the releases, they've wondered out loud why the agency didn't resort to lower-cost, less punitive detention alternatives a long time ago. From a Washington Post story:

"There are some folks in detention right now who shouldn’t be there. We do know that administration has treated driving without a license as if it’s been a heinous crime. They sometimes detain asylum seekers,” says Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice. “There are other ways to ensure people show up for immigration hearing that are much more cost-effective.”

For the record, immigrants held in ICE detention centers are not serving time for criminal offenses. Even those who are convicted of crimes serve their sentences in prison, then are transferred to an ICE facility to be processed for deportation. Those who appeal a deportation order can wind up staying long-term. 

ICE officials haven't confirmed whether more budget-related detainee releases are planned. But at more than a hundred dollars a day, housing even a few hundred detainees isn't small change.