Agustín Morales walked out of the Broward Transitional Center in Deerfield Beach on Tuesday, one of the scores of undocumented immigrants being released from South Florida detention facilties this week by federal officials who say they can no longer afford to house and feed them because of looming budget cuts.
"It was a happy surprise but I couldn't figure out why it happened so fast," Morales, 35, said Wednesday. "To me, it was God who opened the doors from that place."
Some of the released detainees are being fitted with ankle bracelets so they can be monitored electronically, while others have been told to report periodically to immigration officials. None of those freed are described as violent offenders, and all of them still need to appear before an immigration judge who will ultimately decide their fate.
Morales, a Mexican citizen who has lived in Naples for 13 years and has two American-born children, was locked up nearly 10 months ago after he went to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Miami in hopes of applying for legal status. Released Tuesday about 1 a.m., Morales was not placed under electronic monitoring, but will have to report to ICE periodically.
The release across the U.S. of several hundred men and women facing deportation is one of the first signs of just what $85 billion in automatic spending cuts — known as the sequester — could mean as the process kicks into gear on Friday, according to analysts.
Reaction to the release of undocumented immigrants was swift.
"It's abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is running the House hearings on immigration reform. "By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives."
Pompano Beach resident David Caulkett, vice president of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, said, "I'm outraged, as all citizens should be. This is a tactic to undermine Republicans, and one more proof that President Obama has no intention of ever enforcing immigration laws."
Caulkett added, "How are to we to believe that these are not criminal aliens who are dangerous?"
But immigrant advocates hailed the decision.
"I was thrilled to learn that several women I represent were released," said Jessica Shulruff, an attorney with Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami. "Why it took the threat of sequestration for ICE to do the right and cost-effective thing is beyond me," she said.
Shulruff said that up to 15 women she represents have been released, including some who have been victims of domestic violence.
"This is good for the clients and good for the taxpayers as well," she said. "These are not criminals. They are not a danger to the community."
Nestor Yglesias, an ICE spokesman in South Florida, said he could not estimate the number of detainees who would be released locally.
Pedro Garcia, a 31-year-old Guatemalan, returned to Homestead, fitted with an ankle monitor, after his release Monday.
"I used to work in the fields out in Florida City picking up greens and beans," said Garcia, who was detained after racking up several unpaid traffic tickets. "I can't work now until they take [the ankle monitor] off. There's no signal over there and it could get wet. They said we have to cover it with a bag so it doesn't get damaged."
The ankle monitor also means he can't leave the area to find work. "I'm trying to find a job around here but there aren't that many right now," he said.
Jose Parra, a Mexican national who has been detained at the Broward Transitional Center since November, said two of his roommates were released this week, while others had been deported recently.
"My room is like empty," Parra said during a phone call from the detention center. "There's just two of us left, from six guys. The place is truly empty."
Several detainees estimated that as many as 45 people were released on Monday alone. Some — like Morales, who was released in the middle of the night with about 20 others — said the number is closer to 100.
The National Immigration Forum estimated last year that it cost the federal government between $122 and $164 a day to hold a detainee in its immigration system. In contrast, the organization said, alternative forms of detention could cost 30 cents to $14 a day per immigrant. About 34,000 people are in ICE detention at any given time.
"ICE has needlessly detained countless men and women at great cost to U.S. taxpayers," said Cheryl Little, executive director of AI Justice. "These folks have lived here for years, worked hard, paid taxes, broken no criminal laws, and have U.S. citizen children.
"Many of them should not have been detained in the first place. Ironically, these are the very people who would benefit from a comprehensive immigration reform bill that both the administration and members of Congress from both parties support."
Jonathan Fried, executive director of We Count!, a South Florida immigrant and worker advocate organization based in Homestead, said he picked up an inmate who was released from the Broward Transitional Center on Monday night around 11 p.m. He said family members were waiting.
"These are all folks who have very minor records or no records at all," said Fried. "There is no reason for them to be in detention. They should be reunited with families."
Fried said he would like to see the Obama administration suspend all deportations while the debate over immigration reform continues.
Andrew Wakefield, a 46-year-old British Royal Air Force veteran who fought alongside U.S. troops during the Gulf War, hopes to be released soon. He has been detained at the Broward Transitional Center since October.
"I try not to get too disgruntled," he said by telephone. "I can handle being away from my family. But when I see people walking out of here with an ankle bracelet, it means it wasn't necessary for them to be here. It's heartbreaking."
Wakefield said his wife gave birth to their daughter, Victoria, in January. "I haven't seen her yet," he said. "I don't want her to come here."
Morales, a plumber, said that because he has been unable to work in nearly a year, his house is in foreclosure. His wife, who received a work permit a few months ago, is employed at a daycare center.
"I feel like I wasn't a person that needed to be locked up," he said. "I didn't have a bad record, and I showed them that I wasn't going anywhere. They could have given me an ankle bracelet or something [a long time ago]."
Cost to taxpayers
It costs from $122 to $164 a day to keep a detainee in Broward Transitional Center.
Monitoring a detainee electronically, with an ankle bracelet, costs $14 a day.
The cost of deporting a detainee varies by case. ICE tends to provide airfare, bus fare and spending money as necessary. Those deported are not allowed back in the country for 10 years.
Detainees who leave the country voluntarily pay for their travel out of pocket, but are not legally deported.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times