One week before mandatory government budget cuts go into effect, the Department of Homeland Security has started releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants being held in immigration jails across the country.
In Pinal county alone, Sheriff Paul Babeu said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had worked overtime last weekend to release about 500 illegal immigrants from jail.
I.C.E. officials say they have reviewed "several hundred cases" of immigrants being held in jails throughout the country, and decided to release them from custody, and place them on a supervised release program that would be more cost effective.
The government will not be dropping deportation proceedings against them. They could still get deported after their cases are heard.
Cesar Lorenti was in custody at the Immigration facility in Florence. He was recently released from prison and said he considered it "miracle" when officials came and told him he would be set free.
Lorenti said he walked 2,000 miles through the desert from Guatemala, and turned himself in to port authorities at the border. This was his 9th time in detention. He said he had already been deported several times before.
When he was released from prison, Lorenti said "I was jumping for joy. I was so happy to know I would be leaving."
He spoke to Tucson News Now with the help an immigrant advocate who helped translate for us.
"I have fear but I want to comply with all of the laws. I want to live here well, go to the courts and hope we can have immigration reform so I can stay here safely," said Lorenti.
Marco Galindo is another illegal immigrant who has been in I.C.E. custody for 7 years. He was recently released as well, much to his surprise.
"Seven years now, because I don't have papers you know. I mean, I'm an illegal in this country, in the United States since 1995. I come for visa, I overstay my visa," said Galindo.
The government is calling it a supervised release program, where those released would still be required to abide by a strict reporting schedule. They would have to attend appointments at regional I.C.E. offices. Some could be required to wear electronic monitoring devices.
Government officials estimate this mass release of detainees would help them save millions of dollars.
A study estimates it costs between $120-$160 per day to detain an illegal immigrant. Supervised release would cut down that cost from 30-cents to $14 per day.
Officials also said it would free up much needed bed space for hard core criminals.
Many are outraged over the release of these immigrants.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said she was "appalled."
She called it "the height of absurdity, given that the releases are taking place even before the federal sequestration cuts have gone into effect."
In a statement Brewer said: "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 news is especially concerning when coupled with DHS' acknowledgment today that it may not be able to maintain operation of 34,000 immigration jail beds, as mandated by Congress.
She went on to say: "Everyone knows the federal government must get a handle on spending, and it is well past time that the President begin working with Congress to find real budget solutions. But we cannot let public safety and the rule of law be collateral damage of the President's failed leadership to pass a budget."
Sheriff Paul Babeu said he was concerned about public safety in Pinal county with the release of so many illegal immigrants.
In a statement, Babeu said: "Clearly, serious criminals are being released to the streets of our local communities by this mass budget pardon. These are illegal's that even President Obama wants to deport. This is insane that public safety is sacrificed when it should be the budget priority that's safeguarded."
Babeu went on to say that I.C.E agents were paid overtime Saturday and Sunday to release over 500 detainees in Pinal County alone. "These criminal illegal's were scheduled for deportation, yet now they receive a pardon and once again become the problem of local law enforcement and a burden to the state of Arizona. The President predicts a doomsday scenario and his plans are already being implemented," said Babeu.
Sheriff Babeu concluded, "President Obama would never release 500 criminal illegal's to the streets of his home town, yet he has no problem with releasing them in Arizona. The safety of the public is threatened and the rule of law discarded as a political tactic in this Sequester Battle."
Federal officials have not said how many detainees they plan to release, but they have said anyone charged with serious, violent crimes would not be considered for supervised release.
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