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PHOENIX (CBS5/AP) -
The Department of Homeland Security has started releasing illegal immigrants being held in immigration jails across the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Tuesday.
The moves comes a week before mandatory budget cuts go into effect across the government.
President Barack Obama and his administration have been issuing dire warnings about the impact of sequestration.
Dr. Bruce Merrill, a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute, said the release of the prisoners is simply a way to get the attention of the public.
"[The release] is politics as usual," Merrill said.
"With two days to go, [the administration is] pulling everything out that they can to try to get some kind of a decision made on sequester," he continued.
The Department of Homeland Security's budget for fiscal year 2013 is nearly $60 billion. According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant facing deportation jailed. With the release of 303 people in Arizona so far, the federal government is saving about $50,000 per day.
However, there are other less controversial cuts that could be made. For example, the DHS spends between $9 million and $11 million a year on repatriation flights. If those were cut, that is the equivalent of releasing 67,000 illegal immigrants from prison.
Arizona leaders and groups are speaking out.
Gov. Jan Brewer issued this statement:
"I'm appalled to learn the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has begun to release hundreds of illegal aliens from custody, the first of potentially thousands to soon be freed under the guise of federal budget cuts. This is pure political posturing and the height of absurdity given that the releases are being granted before the federal 'sequestration' cuts have even gone into effect.
"This represents a return to exactly the kind of catch-and-release procedures that have long made a mockery of our country's immigration system. The news is especially concerning when coupled with DHS' acknowledgment today that it may not be able to maintain operation of 34,000 immigration jail beds, as mandated by Congress.
"Everyone knows the federal government must get a handle on spending, and it is well past time that the President begin working with Congress to find real budget solutions. But we cannot let public safety and the rule of law be collateral damage of the President's failed leadership to pass a budget."
Puente Arizona, a human rights grassroots organization, said:
"Hundreds of immigrant detainees were released this weekend in Phoenix, with hundreds more expected to follow this week, joined by thousands across the country. While ICE claims budget cuts are reason behind the releases, it begs the question, why was the federal government spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on detaining them in the first place?
"'The releases show us that those detained never needed to be behind bars,' said Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Puente Human Rights Movement. 'We have always known that detention is punitive, keeping families apart while people fight their civil immigration cases. Now ICE has shown us that there is no reason for people to be detained while they fight their cases. They shouldn't stop at releasing hundreds. They should close the entire unnecessary immigration detention system.'"
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-AZ, issued a news release Wednesday that stated:
"It is downright irresponsible and borderline criminal the way President Obama and the DHS released illegal immigrants who knowingly violated our nation's laws. It is equivalent to admitting they did no wrong. This action by President Obama's DHS sends a clear message - this administration does not take our American citizenship or our Constitution seriously and is willing to trade both for political posturing.
"Did the President just take a page out of Fidel Castro's playbook and release inmates from jails and onto the public?
"This goes to show that the President's administration is willing to threaten central government functions like public safety in an attempt to achieve their political goals. Public safety is an essential function of government and the American people need not be held victim by the President."
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu blasted the Washington gridlock over the budget battle and said it is already harming public safety in Arizona by ICE's move.
"Clearly, serious criminals are being released to the streets of our local communities by this mass budget pardon," Babeu said in a statement. "These are illegals that even President Obama wants to deport. This is insane that public safety is sacrificed when it should be the budget priority that's safeguarded."
Babeu said ICE agents were paid overtime Saturday and Sunday to release more than 500 detainees in Pinal County alone.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona also attacked the decision.
"With more than $1 trillion in budget deficits, there are many opportunities to rein in federal spending," Flake said. "Releasing hundreds of detainees who have violated the law is most certainly not one of them. This was a deeply misguided move by DHS."
ICE officials said the immigrants released have been placed on "an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release."
Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.