Demonstrators hold a vigil July 31, 2013, for family members who were being held in a detention facility in Eloy, Ariz. (Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic)
PHOENIX — An investigation into the release of more than 2,220 immigration detainees in 2013 that drew outrage from Gov. Jan Brewer and other Arizona officials faults top Immigration and Customs Enforcement executives for poor planning and a lack of communication.
But the investigation by the Office of Inspector General did not find evidence that the release of the detainees, among them more than 600 convicted criminals, was politically motivated, as Brewer and other critics have charged.
Instead, the inspector general’s 42-page report made public Tuesday supports claims by ICE officials that they decided to release immigration detainees — including the convicted criminals — in late February and early March 2013 for budgetary reasons, as mandatory across-the-board cuts known as sequester were about to kick in.
A total of 2,228 immigration detainees were released, including 342 from detention facilities in Arizona, the highest number in any state.
Andrew Wilder, Brewer’s spokesman, called Tuesday’s report “damning,” adding that it “confirms the Obama administration broke the law when it released thousands of illegal aliens, including more than 600 who had criminal records.”
The report also prompted Arizona’s U.S. senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, to send a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson raising concerns about the administration’s policies for releasing criminals.
Flake told The Arizona Republic that the priority is to make sure the mistakes never happen again.
“They said there wasn’t guidance from DHS and that this wasn’t properly planned or coordinated with the people it should have been coordinated with,” Flake said. “We’ve got to follow up to make sure they make changes.”
He said he has a good relationship with Johnson and has some confidence that he will cooperate with requests for better data on who is being released and other statistics.
“When we wrote letters or asked questions at hearings with (former DHS) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano, we weren’t very hopeful of getting an answer,” Flake said. “Jeh Johnson has been much more responsive.”
At the time the detainees were released in Arizona, Brewer speculated on national television that it could be “payback” for the state’s tough stance on border security and illegal immigration and for passing Senate Bill 1070, the state’s immigration-enforcement law, which President Obama’s administration challenged in court.
Many Republican members of Congress also accused the Obama administration of using scare tactics to pressure Republicans into supporting tax increases to reduce the budget deficit that led to the sequester.
The inspector general’s report, however, found that budgetary factors were behind ICE officials’ decision to release the immigration detainees from facilities across the country.
Among the factors is a requirement by Congress that ICE detain an average of 34,000 immigrants a day even though ICE receives funding to pay for detaining only 31,300 immigrants a day.
At the start of fiscal 2013, the average number of immigrants detained by ICE had grown to 35,610 a day, primarily due to an unexpected surge in illegal immigrants from Central America being apprehended by the Border Patrol in southern Texas, the report noted.
On top of that, ICE’s budget had been frozen from the year before as a temporary budget resolution and mandatory cuts under the sequester were about to kick in.
As a result, ICE was facing a major budget shortfall.
“When ICE’s budgetary shortfall became apparent in January, 2013, ICE leadership assumed it would be able to manage the shortfall by reducing the number of detained aliens,” the report said.
The decision to release immigration detainees for budgetary reasons led to some convicted criminals being let go who by law should not have been set free, the report said. However, lower-level ICE officials in the field did not release any immigration detainees they considered a danger to the community.
The report faulted ICE leaders for not consulting with the White House or with the Department of Homeland Security before deciding to release the detainees.
But the report said inspectors obtained “no evidence that ICE received guidance or directives about the timing or nature of the detainee releases” from the White House.
Gonzalez and Nowicki write for the Arizona Republic. The Republic’s Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this report.