Immigration and Customs Enforcement's unusual decision to release hundreds of "low-risk" undocumented immigrants from detention may be a straightforward move to cut costs in anticipation of the massive spending reductions scheduled to hit the federal government Friday.
It may also be part of a broader political maneuver by President Barack Obama's administration to force lawmakers to find a way to avert the automatic downsizing.
Whatever the case, one thing seems clear: the action has angered Republicans. That won't make it much easier for the president to achieve one of his top second-term goals: reforming the nation's immigration laws.
The White House says it didn't have any say in the releases and didn't see them coming. That seemed reasonable to Gregory Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington.
"I'd be surprised (if the White House were involved), because if anything, this has a detrimental effect on pushing forward with immigration reform," Chen said.
He added: "It will create some controversy about the immigration issue, and controversy always makes it hard."
Obama wants Congress to pass a law that gives undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, as long as they meet stringent requirements. Republicans and some Democrats want assurances that border security won't be weakened. The president met with Republican senators on the issue Tuesday, just as news of the ICE releases was breaking. The Republicans said the meeting went well.
Around that time, ICE announced that it had started releasing several hundred illegal immigrants from detention centers around the country as a way to deal with the looming automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester. All of those released were put on some sort of supervision until their deportation cases are completed, an ICE spokeswoman said.
Now GOP leaders are furious at ICE, and Obama. They say the releases threaten national security and could be used as a way to "scare" the public about the impending budget cuts, known as a sequester, and give in to groups pushing the administration to soften its detention policies.
There are more than 30,000 immigrants held in public and privately owned detention centers at any one time, the result of a rapid expansion of detentions and deportations under the Obama administration.
The total number of people detained by ICE annually has about doubled since 2001 to more than 400,000. Most have been picked up by police after being stopped for relatively trivial matters, like traffic violations, although there are also many who've been convicted of serious crimes. The result is a huge backlog in immigration courts and a crowding of detention centers, where it costs the government, depending on the source, between $122 and $160 a day per detainee.
Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, accused the president of using the threat of a sequester to pursue a "de facto catch-and-release policy" that was already in the works.
Immigrant rights groups, meanwhile, applauded the move as proof that it made good economic sense to stop detaining low-risk undocumented immigrants who haven't been found guilty of a crime.
Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service under former President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post that it wasn't clear what ICE's motivation was: scare tactic, policy move or both.
Chen, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the releases made sense, even if the timing didn't.
"From our viewpoint, a lot of these people shouldn't be in detention anyway," he said. "So, why would ICE have chosen to do it now? Maybe they've finally confronted the budgetary problem, and they need to start making some clear decision."