MELROSE PARK, ILLINOIS— The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is feeling the budget sting brought on by strict cuts - known as sequestration - which took effect March 1.
As a result, the department released thousands of undocumented immigrants it could no longer afford to hold in detention. The issue of immigration reform now intersects with deficit reduction, two hot topics on lawmakers' agendas, and provides hope to thousands of immigrants facing deportation in the coming months.
On a late December night in 2012, U.S. law enforcement agents entered the suburban Chicago home of Cesar Henriquez, an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S., to arrest him.
His crime was failing to report for deportation.
"There was a lot of pain on my family, and my kids. I have two children. They are almost teenagers. There was a lot of sadness in my house," he said.
Henriquez, spent almost 60 days in detention while waiting to be deported, until one early morning in lat January.
"They woke us up at two in the morning, and told us to pack up all of our stuff because we were leaving the facility," he recalled.
He was not sent back to El Salvador, his home country, but to suburban Chicago, where he would wait out deportation in his own home.
"At first I didn’t know why they released us, but somebody told us because Immigration doesn’t have any more money, so they can’t keep us in custody," he said.
Henriquez is one of thousands of undocumented immigrants released in recent months due to budget pressures. At a news conference in February, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged that sequestration would bring problems to her agency.
"Under sequestration, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement will be forced to reduce detention and removal and would not be able to retain the 34,000 detention beds as required by Congress," she said.
Joshua Hoyt, an executive for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says he was surprised by the decision.
"If we are spending more than 18 billion dollars a year on incarcerating immigrants, hunting them down, stopping them at the border, we’re wasting a lot of money," he said.
Hoyt says long-term savings on immigration enforcement could come with bipartisan legislation on immigration reform lawmakers currently seek.
"The entire country is now talking about immigration reform, and many of these people would be able to stay, and their families need not be destroyed uselessly," he said.
Cesar Henriquez wants lawmakers to reach a deal before December, when he expects to be deported.
"My message for the president is to stop deporting people and let everybody who has no criminal problems, let them go free," he said.
If he is forced to leave, Henriquez says he will spend the money needed to hire a "coyote," or smuggler, to get him back inside the U.S. so he can be reunited with this family.