COLLIER COUNTY — When a Golden Gate sixth-grader takes the soccer field Saturday, his father will watch him play for the first time in nearly a year.
Agustin Morales II was one of hundreds of low-priority immigration detainees released earlier this week around the country in a surprise cost-cutting move announced by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget,” said the agency’s Tampa-based spokeswoman, Carissa Cutrell. “Over the last week, ICE has reviewed several hundred cases and placed these individuals on methods of supervision less costly than detention.”
The Daily News spoke with two undocumented Collier County men who found out late Monday they would be freed from the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach on the provision that they check in with immigration authorities every two weeks.
They are not exonerated, however. Rather than foot the bill to house them in a government facility before an immigration judge rules on their case, they are now home with their families.
“All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings,” Cutrell said. “Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.”
An immigration interview last May turned sour quickly for Morales, 36. Instead of discussing his 12 years in the country — two children, a wife, parents and siblings, a mortgage on a Golden Gate house, a clean criminal record — immigration agents detained him. He was a repeat border crasser, they said, due to an attempt in his late teens to come to the U.S. through Mexico’s northern border. That made him a priority for detention.
“They told me I had no right to stay in this country, they wanted to send me back (to Mexico) without the chance of fighting from the outside, of showing them everything I have here,” Morales said.
He and the other man, a 34-year-old East Naples father of two who asked his name not be disclosed, said rumblings of the release began Sunday afternoon.
They both called their wives in Naples on Monday.
“They started letting people go, we couldn’t believe it, even the workers there,” the East Naples father said.
That evening, officers at the detention center came for the Collier men. They needed to call for a ride home, they were told.
“Someone wants to talk to you,” the East Naples detainee’s sister told his wife from the car, before handing him the phone.
“I’m on my way home,” he told her as they drove west, away from the Pompano Beach facility where he had been held since December following a charge of driving without a valid license.
The Obama administration has been issuing dire warnings about the impact of the sequestration.
The sequester was originally passed as part of the 2011 debt ceiling compromise. The $85 billion in automatic cuts imposed across the board were intended to encourage Congress to work out a better deal to reduce the nation’s debt and deficit.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at the White House on Monday that across-the-board cuts would impact the department’s core operations, including border security and airport screening operations.
She also warned that DHS might not be able to afford to keep the 34,000 immigration jail beds mandated by Congress. On average last week, there were 30,773 people being held in ICE jails.
“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester as without sequester,” said Napolitano, adding that the impact would be “like a rolling ball. It will keep growing.”
According to the National Immigration Forum, it costs the government about $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant facing deportation jailed. In a report on immigration detention costs last year, the advocacy group said costs for supervised release can range from about 30 cents to $14 a day.
During a press briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the decision to release the detainees was “made by career officials at ICE, without any input from the White House, as a result of fiscal uncertainty over the continuing resolution, as well as possible sequester.”
Since their release, the Collier men checked in Wednesday with immigration agents — one in Miramar, the other in Tampa. They will both have to return to check in at the ICE offices in coming weeks as a condition of their release.
After Morales explained to his 11-year-old son he would have go out of town in March to meet with ICE officials, the child worried.
Agustin Morales III was there when his father was taken away, and he was there as soon as his father left the detention center Tuesday.
“I started crying tears, like, joy tears,” the boy said.
“Yesterday he asked, ‘Dad, are they going to leave you there?’” Morales said of his next ICE appointment, “I can’t promise him anything. I told him ...I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I have to go, if I don’t they’ll come after me.
“We don’t know when things will be stable. At least for the next 15 days I know I’ll be fine,” he said. “After 15 days, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.