The release of illegal immigrants from detention in anticipation of budget cuts created a new hurdle for the new-found momentum for comprehensive immigration reform, politicians on both sides of the aisle say.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement released about 2,000 illegal immigrants last month in a move that apparently was a surprise to the White House and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
About 300 people were released in Arizona, including 51 from the Pinal County jail. The complete breakdown of who was released in the state and across the country has not been made available.
For area lawmakers the releases were poorly timed and shouldn't have happened.
"The U.S. public is loath to trust the federal government to move forward with the reforms necessary to address widespread issues presented by our broken immigration system unless steps are taken to address longstanding issues with security," reads a letter Republican Sen. Jeff Flake sent Napolitano.
"Uncoordinated actions such as these taken by those within your department do little to increase that trust and could not have come at a less opportune moment," it said.
Similarly, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat, said the releases complicated the political conversation about immigration, and he speculates that the move might have been politically motivated.
"It's more than a mere coincidence this happened this way," he said. "Now opponents of any immigration reform have an issue in which to say, 'Look what happened.' "
ICE shouldn't have released people without looking for other ways to address budget problems, said Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat.
"These releases undermine long-overdue bipartisan discussions on fixing our broken immigration system - discussions that are now under way," he said.
Gov. Jan Brewer and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, both Republicans, have made the news rounds speculating about the releases.
Brewer called the prisoner releases political "payback" for the state's tough immigration law and her public declarations that the border is not secure.
Babeu has complained that neither he nor other law enforcement officials were notified of the mass releases.
Babeu has said more than 500 criminal illegal immigrants were released by ICE in Pinal County, though he has so far not produced documentation showing that is the case.
Unlike Babeu, groups pushing for immigration reform, like Detention Watch Network, describe the agency's move as good news. That's because they say it shows many people are being kept behind bars who don't need to be.
"We are encouraged ICE is taking this step," said Silky Shah, spokeswoman for the national coalition that addresses immigration detention.
"The reality is, that detention system has been incredibly secretive, growing incredibly rapidly," she said. "People can stay in detention 30 days to years, especially if they decided to fight their case."
ICE planned to reduce the detainee population by 1,000 a week from Feb. 15 through March 31, an internal ICE document the House Judiciary Committee obtained shows. Napolitano, however, has said part of the population reduction was due to normal detainee fluctuations rather than the budget cuts known as the sequester.
News of the mass releases became public soon after rumors started spreading among immigration attorneys and advocacy groups.
After the media inquired about it, ICE issued a written statement that said the agency had directed field offices to review the detained population on a case-by-case basis "to ensure it is in line with available funding" and emphasized those released posed the least threat to public safety.
With sequestration now in effect, ICE must cut expenses by $294 million, about 5 percent of its budget, agency officials said.
In fiscal year 2012, ICE spent $2 billion in custody operations and about $72 million in alternatives to detention. The agency's budget proposal for this fiscal year requested 32,800 beds.
The mass releases saved money because the supervised programs and the use of electronic ankle bracelets are less expensive than detention.
Since the releases were first reported, the agency has been slow to release information about the selection process and the conditions under which people were released.
A federal hearing "to get down to the bottom of this problematic situation" is likely to occur soon, according to a news release from the House Judiciary Committee.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is one of the latest lawmakers to also write Napolitano asking for answers and has given the department until March 18 to respond.
ICE doesn't keep records on whether a person was released primarily for budgetary reasons, but the agency is conducting a review "in order to identify which individuals were released primarily due to normal fluctuations and which were released primarily due to budgetary pressures," spokeswoman Amber Cargile said.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.