By CRISTINA SILVA and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN
FILE – In this Jan. 3, 2013 file photo, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton speaks during a news conference at ICE headquarters in Washington. In February, 2013 the government let go of hundreds of immigrants from detention centers in states including Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas as the government prepared for looming cuts that began in March. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
PHOENIX (AP) — Marco Antonio Durazo had been awaiting deportation from an Arizona detention center for six months when an officer came to get him from his cell.
“Obama doesn’t have any money,” the officer said.
“We found it very funny,” Durazo said, but it wasn’t a joke.
Soon, he was free along with more than 2,000 other illegal immigrants who were released by the Obama administration because of budget pressures. Officials have also scaled back border agent hours, drug patrols and staffing at border crossings — all during the peak illegal border-crossing season.
While prompted by the nation’s money woes, the changes also come amid the nation’s shifting immigration policy after years of mass arrests and deportations and billions spent on border security.
The long-term impact of that change has yet to be seen. The Border Patrol said January and February numbers showed a nearly 10 percent increase in apprehensions along the Mexico border for the first two months of the year, compared with 2012.
There could be several factors for the rise, including immigrants motivated by an improving U.S. economy or those anticipating congressional action that could create a path to citizenship. The cuts come as lawmakers are struggling to work out a comprehensive immigration reform package whose success may ultimately be tied to questions of border security.
On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain led a bipartisan group of senators on a tour of the border, and they said they were close to a deal but continued to tie it to keeping immigration in check. They promised more details next week, but McCain said that there’s “no doubt” in his mind that the border is less secure because of the budget cuts.
The release of more than 2,200 immigrants like Durazo drew headlines this month as the government prepared for looming cuts that began in March. In February, the government let go of hundreds of immigrants from detention centers in states including Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas. The administration planned to let roughly 3,000 more go in March, according to an internal government budget document reviewed by the AP and later released by the House Judiciary Committee.
The moves were an attempt by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to get its detainee population in line with what it could afford. The released immigrants still face deportation but will not be held while awaiting their court dates.
Some in Congress said ICE should have explained beforehand that there wasn’t enough money to keep everyone in detention.
The immigrants and their lawyers say they were released with little notice or instruction beyond being told to check in periodically.
In many cases, the immigrants were dropped off in the middle of the night at bus stations or airports in metropolitan centers without money to finish their journey home. In Florida, some were released from a facility bordering rural swamp land outside Miami.
Critics argue the plan allowed the release of thousands of criminals without regard to public safety, but officials say almost all the detainees were characterized as low risk. ICE Director John Morton told a congressional panel that 10 of the 2,228 people were the highest level of offender.
“In reducing detention levels, we took careful steps to ensure that national security and public safety were not compromised,” he told a congressional hearing.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration, in the midst of trying to get immigration overhauled, switched from daily declarations that the border was secure to warning of the increasingly dire consequences of cutting $754 million from Customs and Border Protection’s $12 billion budget.
In the first week of the cuts, some agents in South Texas reported a spike in arrests of immigrants who said smugglers told them they would be briefly detained and then released. The agents’ union quickly spread word of a “tidal wave” of immigrants taking advantage of the situation.
Several immigrants interviewed at a migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, Texas, said they had not heard anything suggesting now was a particularly good time to cross. Instead, several said they were returning home because the drug cartel that controlled river crossings made it too expensive and dangerous.
“Here, they say you can’t cross the river right now because there are a lot of kidnappings. They’re killing a lot of people,” said Josue Manuel Vazquez, who added that he escaped kidnappers who held him for five days as they tried to extort $4,500 from his daughter, a legal U.S. resident.
Some contend the budget cuts are relatively small when put in the broader context of the huge buildup of border security over the past decade.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Homeland Security assigned about 28,100 people in 2004 to patrol land borders and inspect travelers at all ports of entry at a cost of about $5.9 billion. By the end of 2011, those figures were 41,400 employees at a cost of $11.8 billion.
“The scale of (automatic budget cuts) is minuscule compared to the vast buildup,” said Geoff Boyce, spokesman for No More Deaths, an immigration advocacy group in Tucson, Ariz.
The effects of the cuts are being seen in border cities and among agents. Customs and Border Protection reduced overtime for its officers at ports of entry. In San Diego and other crossing points, that translated to fewer lanes open at land crossings and longer waits for people and trucks carrying produce and other goods from Mexico.
Those waits are only expected to worsen in coming weeks as the agency begins furloughs amid a hiring freeze. In a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned that peak wait times at the busiest border crossings could reach five hours or more.
Border Patrol agents received notices advising them they would face up to 14 days of furloughs during the next six months and would no longer be eligible for overtime that for years has added an average of two hours to every agent’s shift.
The agency is also suspending assignments known as “details” that sent agents from slower parts of the border to busier areas for months at a time. Agents on detail are often put up in hotels and receive a per diem.
The cuts have also forced the government to pull back on flight and ship patrols in the drug war in Central America.
Durazo learned about the budget issues while watching the news at his sister’s home in the Phoenix area after his release. He crossed into the U.S. from his native Mexico in 1969 when he was 19, and he said he doesn’t know what will happen next with his immigration case. He has, however, decided to embrace his good fortune.
“We gave many thanks to God, because we prayed a lot while we were in there,” he said.