Dolores had just fallen asleep in her jail cell early one morning last week when she heard a guard’s voice barking: “Get your things together. You’re going.”
At first, Dolores thought she was being deported. For much of the time since immigration agents picked her up in 2010 during a traffic stop when she had no legal documents, the Sherburne County jail in Elk River has been her home. Suddenly she was leaving it.
Hours later, she learned the truth from an immigration official who she says told her: “You’re very expensive to have here in jail. The budget isn’t good and you’ve got to go. Call your friends.”
Dolores was one of hundreds of undocumented immigrants released from detention centers across the country last week in a controversial move by federal officials to save money in anticipation of $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that began to take effect Friday as sequestration talks broke down in Washington.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials refused to say how many detainees were released in Minnesota and around the country.
“Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention,” ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a written statement. “Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.”
Even those released still face deportation proceedings and their fate is uncertain, Christensen added.
“I think everybody has been equally surprised,” John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in St. Paul, said of the sudden release of detained immigrants. He applauded the move — something he and other immigration lawyers have been advocating for some time.
“It’s completely consistent with what the administration has been trying to do to focus costs, including detention costs, on people who are the highest priority for deportation — people with serious crimes,” he said.
It costs the government about $164 a day to jail an illegal immigrant facing deportation, according to the National Immigration Forum. In a report on immigration detention costs last year, the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group said costs for supervised release can range from about 30 cents to $14 a day.
Republican lawmakers have decried the releases.
“It’s abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said last week. “By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the Administration is needlessly endangering American lives. It also undermines our efforts to come together with the Administration and reform our nation’s immigration laws.”
A soda and snow
For Dolores, hours passed on Tuesday morning before she knew what was happening.
After being summoned by the guard, she hastily gathered her things, was put in handcuffs and ankle chains, and was placed in a van bound for the ICE office in Bloomington.
Since deportations generally happen on Tuesdays, Dolores feared the worst. She had been deported before, in 2006, soon after crossing the border. She fled her native Honduras again a year later, fearful of an abusive boyfriend. Because of him, she asked that her full name not be used.
She was convicted of illegal re-entry after removal and because of this conviction, she was subject to mandatory detention. While in jail, she lost more than a third of the hair on her head.
After waiting at ICE, an immigration official approached her and delivered the stunning news — she was getting out of jail.
She picked up her personal belongings — some clothes, a Disney Princess coloring book, a bag of letters from friends and her legal papers. She says an immigration official told her: “Tomorrow I want to see you here at 9 a.m.”
A woman in the waiting room wished her well, and gave her a statue of the Virgin Mary and a bottle of Mountain Dew. “It tasted like the best wine,” said Dolores, who says she wasn’t allowed to drink soda in jail.
As she headed out the door with her attorney, Sarah Brenes, Dolores paused, bracing herself for the sunlight. “She said, ‘I feel like a vampire,’ ” Brenes recalled.
It was cloudy though, and Dolores was grateful. “I wanted to throw myself in the snow and run and scream,” she said.
She cannot leave the state, she must check in with immigration officials regularly and she must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet around her ankle. She has to charge it at least twice a day.
For now, she’s staying at a women’s shelter. It’s a place with a real bed, real food and a real shower, Dolores said. And the mother of three can call her children, who still live in Honduras — one of whom she hasn’t spoken to since she was jailed.
“I can breathe fresh air. I can see some friends. I feel good.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.