State seeks more federal aid for cost of keeping illegal immigrant inmates

A federal program pays less than 12% of the cost for noncitizen criminals. As California renews its bid for funding, some lawmakers are optimistic.
By Richard Simon
April 11, 2009

Reporting from Washington — Fifteen years after Congress promised that Washington would help states pick up the tab for imprisoning illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, California is receiving but a fraction — less than 12 cents on the dollar — of its nearly $1-billion annual cost.

The unfulfilled promise is perhaps the most glaring example of the federal government shortchanging California.

  • Costly problem

Officials from states greatly affected by illegal immigration long have argued that their taxpayers should not have to bear the burden for Washington’s failure to control the border.

But Congress this year provided $400 million nationwide to cover the cost of keeping illegal immigrants behind bars, less than what was provided a decade ago. In that same period, California’s share of the federal money has declined from 68% to 39%.

“California’s percentage of the total amount gets smaller and smaller each year as the issue of criminal aliens becomes more of a national problem,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village).

With states struggling to balance their budgets, California officials are stepping up their efforts to snag more money from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a letter to Washington lawmakers last week that boosting the funding the state receives under the program was his top priority for federal criminal justice funding.

This year, California officials may have reason to be hopeful.

Not only are several Californians in Capitol Hill leadership positions, but a number of high-ranking members of the Obama administration are on record as supporting increased funding.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, when she was Arizona governor, was a leading advocate of boosting the program’s funding, telling Congress last year to “live up to its financial obligation.”

“Secretary Napolitano understands the issue quite well,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is among a bipartisan group of border-state lawmakers pushing for more money. A number of other Cabinet members in their former jobs also supported increased funding, including Labor Secretary Hilda E. Solis, once a California congresswoman.

Faced with a mounting federal budget deficit, the Obama administration has not committed to increasing funding to cover the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants. But at the very least, President Obama is expected to be more supportive than former President Bush, who sought to eliminate such funding.

“I’m hopeful that we’re going to get more,” said Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

The issue is expected to move center stage as Congress again considers an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

California officials long have complained that state taxpayers send more to Washington than they get back in federal aid and services. But the shortage of federal money for illegal immigrants held in county jails and state prisons has been an especially sore point because California is so disproportionately affected.

The state — with about 19,000 illegal immigrants in prisons, or about 11% of the prison population — is projected to receive about $111 million of its $970-million expected cost this year for imprisoning illegal immigrants.

The federal program provides for reimbursement for incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or multiple misdemeanors. (Cities and counties separately receive federal money for housing immigrant detainees, many of whom are awaiting deportation or fighting their cases in court.)

The lack of money from Washington, along with overcrowding in the state prison system, led California officials last month to institute a policy to no longer lock up illegal immigrants on parole violations who have served their terms and then reenter the country illegally. State officials say the federal government should prosecute illegal immigrants who return to the country after deportation.

The fight to get Washington to foot the bill dates to the 1986 immigration overhaul, which authorized states to be reimbursed. No funds were appropriated.

In 1994, Congress directed the attorney general, as part of an anti-crime bill, to reimburse states for their costs to incarcerate illegal immigrants or transfer custody of the inmates to federal prison. At the time, California’s cost was about $375 million.

Boosting the funding has been difficult because the program is seen as largely benefiting a handful of states greatly affected by illegal immigration — California, New York, Texas, Florida and Arizona.

Lawmakers from other states say that any increase must be balanced against other spending and the need to reduce the federal deficit. Bush, in seeking to eliminate the appropriation, argued that the funds would be better spent to secure the border.

But other states increasingly are struggling to pay bills for housing illegal immigrants in state prisons and county jails. The Minnesota Department of Corrections, for example, spent about $19 million last year but received only about $1 million from Washington.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) that would provide federal payments to counties for incarcerating illegal immigrants accused of a felony or multiple misdemeanors — not just those convicted — passed the House last year on a voice vote. It did not come up in the Senate. Sanchez has reintroduced the bill and a similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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