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U.S. releases hundreds of detained immigrants over budget concerns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A government agency has released hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention due to budget uncertainties, as the "sequestration" budget cuts begin to bite.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has facilities that can detain up to 34,000 people around the country, released "several hundred" people while their deportation cases proceed, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said.

Mandatory budget cuts government-wide, known as sequestration, are scheduled to begin on March 1. The government has also been operating on a continuing resolution which funds agencies until March 27.

"As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE's current budget," Christensen said.

The release was criticized by the Republican head of the House Judiciary Committee as a political stunt by President Barack Obama to pressure Congress to put off the sequestration cuts, due to begin on Friday.

"It's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration," Bob Goodlatte said in a statement.

ICE spokeswoman Christensen said serious offenders were still being held.

"Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety," she said.

The released immigrants were put on "methods of supervision less costly than detention."

That could include a scheduled appearance or call-in at an ICE office or electronic monitoring while they wait for their deportation cases to be decided in court, she said.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House have so far been unable to agree on a budget plan that would prevent $85 billion worth of automatic cuts from kicking in.

(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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