José López was at the Krome detention center awaiting possible deportation to his native Nicaragua when, on Feb. 26, immigration officials suddenly released him.
Overjoyed, López went home that day to rejoin his family in Miami for the first time since he was first arrested several months ago and deportation proceedings were initiated.
López was one of the 2,228 immigrant detainees recently released nationwide by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who cited the controversial budgetary sequester.
Among those were 225 foreign nationals freed within the jurisdiction of the ICE Miami deportation unit, which includes Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias.
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A federal official familiar with the issue said that 76 of the 225 had criminal convictions, including two who were considered aggravated felons.
While not in detention any longer, these foreign nationals remain under supervised release.
The detainees were released between Feb. 9 and March 1, federal officials in Miami said.
Originally, ICE officials said only a few hundred detained immigrants had been released nationwide. But on March 14, in testimony before a congressional committee in Washington, ICE chief John Morton revealed that the total was higher than had previously been acknowledged.
Morton said the freed detainees included not only undocumented immigrants with no criminal records, but also people convicted of theft, financial crimes and drunk driving.
“In some cases, multiple DUIs,” Morton told a House appropriations subcommittee.
Morton added that at least 10 of the foreign nationals released were deemed to be “Level 1” offenders, the most risky designation. Four were later rearrested, he said.
López, who was rearrested March 14, had been put in deportation proceedings as a result of two prior criminal convictions, one in 1997 for burglary when he was in high school, and the second for possession of marijuana in 2001, according to his North Miami immigration attorney, Kenneth Panzer.
“He was thrilled and his family was thrilled when he showed up at home free after he was released under supervision from Krome,” said Panzer. “Now the family is outraged that after the joy of his release came the pain and misery of his rearrest. They are devastated. It’s as if ICE took an axe and cut the family in half and left them to bleed.”
Panzer said the rearrest was doubly painful to the family because López’s wife has to care for their 7-year-old daughter, her father, who has cancer, and her sister, who suffers from Huntington’s disease.
Morton said that although some Level 1 detainees were released, none was a very serious offender.
“There are no mass releases of dangerous criminals under way or any plan for the future, just efforts to live within our budget” Morton told the subcommittee.
In Miami, federal officials familiar with the releases said they had no breakdown on how many detainees were released separately in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands. The sources also had no details on the charges or allegations against any of the 225 who were freed.
Morton said the state with the most releases was Texas. Officials later said a total of 771 foreign nationals were released in Texas.
The Arizona Republic newspaper reported recently that more than one-third of the 342 undocumented immigrants released from detention facilities in Arizona were convicted criminals, and that at least one was a Level 1 offender.
ICE also released foreign nationals who had no criminal records but were detained because they had no immigration documents. In Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the majority of those released — 149 — had no criminal convictions.
In late February, the Miami-based immigrant advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice, which represents foreign national in immigration proceedings, said several of its clients were released from the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach.
“I was thrilled to learn that several women I represent were released,” said group attorney Jessica Shulruff in a statement. “One of my clients was the victim of domestic violence, and I have been trying to get her released from detention for more than nine months. Why it took the threat of sequestration for ICE to do the right — and cost-effective — thing is beyond me.”