Barring an 11th hour, the first phase of a slate of across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration will go into effect on Friday.
Much has been made about the impact these broad spending cuts — $1.2 trillion over ten years — will make in the U.S. economy: Longer lines at the airport due to cutbacks in the Transportation Security Administration’s budget. Trims in federal educational programs, such as Head Start and some grant and work-study programs for college students. But the sequester has also hit the Department of Homeland Security. With cuts looming, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement has taken an unprecedented step to lighten the load: that of freeing hundreds of detainees slated for deportation from centers around the country.
This move may save some serious cash. According to an ACLU report, housing detainees is a pricey undertaking — $2 billion annually, or between $122 and $164 per person per day. The report decries much of this as a needless expense. And it’s a gesture towards fixing U.S. immigration policy: DHS officials say that those released are just the type championed in that same ACLU report — i.e., non-criminals — and stressed that the release of these detainees does not mean that any deportation proceedings against them have been dropped.
It’s already controversial: The detention of so-named “low-risk detainees” has been a bone of contention, not only for the ACLU also other activist groups who have long decried the current system as “agressive and reckless“; they cite the release as proof of their argument. And some within the Republican Party — House Speaker John Boehner among them — are using it as a cudgel against the Obama administration. But that it is a multi-valent political move on the administration’s part is impossible to doubt. It showcases the potentially deleterious effects of the sequester to the constituencies of their political opponents (although its efficacy there depends on how much overlap there is between the bases of GOP legislators fighting with the President over spending and deficits and those who want a stricter immigration policy; we’d guess it’s big but not monolithic). Now, one could argue, they have gotten a taste (albeit a small one; the releases will number in the thousands) of the the fiscal future they’ve endorsed actively or passively. It puts a finger in the eyes of the President’s opponents in Congress and throws some meat to the base. And it might also be a veiled threat, a promise of future radical moves if a deal (on the President’s terms) is not reached.
We don’t see it provoking a lot of change in either the budget fight or the immigration fight in the U.S. Congress, but innovative tactics — especially when they produce what seems to be a good immediate result, if a limited one — deserve some credit.