Bracing for automatic budget cuts set to go into effect tomorrow, the Department of Homeland Security released about 10,000 nonviolent detainees from immigration detention centers on Monday. Republican lawmakers have railed against the move, even as two attempts to avert the so-called sequester cuts were derailed in the Senate today. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) went so far as to compare the DHS’ release of detainees to communist Cuba:
This reminds me of Fidel Castro’s release of criminals in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980…This is unacceptable, irresponsible and reckless. If this is the best cost-savings that Secretary Napolitano can do, then we have to begin to seriously question her judgment…How many criminals have now been released on our streets? And the president shrugs his shoulders and pretends that someone else is responsible. At a certain point, President Obama must take ownership of what goes on in his own administration.
The Mariel Boatlift was a mass exodus from Cuba to the US that erupted into controversy when it was discovered some of the refugees were from Cuban jails and mental hospitals. But according to a Congressional report, just 10 percent of the 125,366 Cubans who came to the US had a criminal record or a history of mental illness that would have prevented them from immigrating to the US. These so-called “excludables” returned to Cuba 4 years later. Even so, “Marielitos” endured a stigma from political and media portrayals of the refugees as criminals.
Like Marielitos, the detainees being released by the DHS have been stigmatized as dangerous criminals by anti-immigrant lawmakers like Barletta. All 10,000 detainees were convicted of nonviolent immigration-related crimes. In fact, the largest growing segment of the US prison population are detained for nonviolent immigration offenses. ICE detainees are often never even convicted of an immigration crime, but are simply sent to languish indefinitely in detention centers, while awaiting a trial. Thousands of detainees in 2010 actually turned out to be American citizens.