White House says ICE acted on its own in releasing detainees ahead of sequester

Rachel Rose Hartman
The Ticket

On Wednesday, a day after Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced its decision to release several hundred illegal immigrants from detention centers facing budget cuts, the White House stressed it had no hand in the decision.

Jay Carney, White House press secretary, told reporters at Wednesday's White House press briefing that "this was a decision made by career officials at ICE, without any input from the White House, as a result of fiscal uncertainty over the continuing resolution, as well as possible sequester." Sequester refers to the across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect March 1 in the absence of a federal budget.

Also on Wednesday, ICE, in what it said was news unrelated to the release of the detainees, confirmed that Gary Mead, the ICE official in charge of the agency's detention facilities, is retiring.

A day earlier the agency said it had released several hundred detainees housed at some of the nation's 250 detention centers in response to sequestration, which would cut billions out of the budget beginning this Friday. The decision immediately drew criticism from Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who called the move a publicity stunt.

Carney stressed that the several hundred detainees released were "low-risk, noncriminal detainees" and will still be monitored until their deportations—just under a less-expensive system.

ICE estimates that it takes about $165 per day to house illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. Some immigrants are held because they cannot afford to make bail, others because they have been deemed high-risk. Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said the looming budget cuts threatened her agency's ability to maintain the 34,000 detention beds they are required to have by Congress.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that Mead had emailed his colleagues announcing his resignation.

ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said Mead was not resigning, but simply informing his colleagues of his long-planned desire to retire. "Gary Mead announced several weeks ago to ICE senior leadership that he planned to retire after 40 years in federal service and 6 years at ICE," Christensen wrote in an email to Yahoo News. "As planned, and as shared with ICE staff weeks ago, Mr. Mead will retire at the end of April.”

Under Mead's nearly four-year tenure, ICE has attempted to make its detention facilities less prisonlike. In some newer facilities, detainees have freedom of movement and do not have to wear traditional prison uniforms.

"We're not in the business of holding people for long-term punitive reasons, you know, serving a sentence," Mead told a reporter last year. "It was never our authority or responsibility to punish people or to correct their behavior. … We have to treat them very differently than a state prison system or a county jail system would treat people in their custody."