Bush: End grants that offset migrant costs
Arizona's attorney general warns of a 'grave impact' if the criminal justice cash is eliminated.
SERGIO BUSTOS, Citizen Washington Bureau
SUSAN CARROLL, Citizen Staff Writer
Feb. 20, 2002
WASHINGTON - When President Bush was governor of Texas, he railed against Congress and the Clinton administration for not giving states enough money to pay the cost of jailing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.
" If the federal government cannot do its job of enforcing the borders, then it owes the states monies to pay for its failure, " Bush said in 1995 after Texas lost a lawsuit claiming the federal government owed it $5 billion for costs of dealing with the immigrants.
As president, Bush is singing a far different tune.
Bush wants to do away with the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program that distributed $535 million last year to help hundreds of state and local governments offset costs of keeping criminal immigrants behind bars.
If the six-year-old program is killed, every state will lose money. Arizona is among those that stand to lose the most.
Arizona received $18.4 million last year.
In addition, nine Arizona counties shared $5.3 million, with $3.1 million going to Maricopa County.
Bush administration officials argue the program doesn't " advance the core mission of the Justice Department. "
" Since the funding is being used to pay the states for something they have already paid for, by design SCAAP is not intended to foster innovative approaches to combat crime, " stated a Justice Department report defending plans to end the program.
Arizona politicians and law enforcement officials view the matter differently.
U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe said that " we need to put as much money as we can into this program as well as reauthorize it. "
The Tucson Republican promised to work to reinstate the funding and " ensure that the money goes to the areas that need it most, the less wealthy, border communities. "
Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano warned in a letter to the state's congressional delegation that elimination of the reimbursements would have a " grave impact on the criminal justice system in Arizona. "
Arizona taxpayers are already among the hardest hit by the cost of processing criminal illegal immigrants through the judicial system.
Pima County paid $7 million in fiscal year 1999-2000 year for law enforcement and court costs for illegal immigrants, according to a University of Arizona study.
Since 1995, Arizona has received more than $40 million in reimbursement through federal grants, but that accounts for just one-fourth of the cost the state incurred by jailing illegal immigrants in one year, Napolitano wrote.
" While securing the border remains the responsibility of the federal government, states and localities are routinely being left with the burden of handling the remaining disproportionate costs, " she wrote. " At a time when public safety concerns are at a historic high and our economy is in a precarious position, the idea of cutting a crucial program of this nature is incomprehensible. "
Napolitano warned the elimination of the program would create a " tremendous hardship " for Arizona and border communities.
For the smaller border counties, the UA study shows the effect of illegal immigrants on the law enforcement and judicial systems can be crippling.
In Santa Cruz County, the costs eat up about 30 percent of the annual budget.
" It would be a terrible thing to happen to us, " said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. " I'm sure (Bush) has his reasons, but it just seems unjust to take away those funds that are so vital down here. "
According to the UA study, funded by the Justice Department, the combined price in Arizona's four border counties was more than $18 million in fiscal year 1999-2000.
The tug-of-war between the federal government and the states over the funds is far from new.
In 1986, Congress voted to give the U.S. attorney general authority to reimburse states for criminal justice costs of illegal immigrants.
But lawmakers never came up with the money to make the payments until 1994.
States got their first checks in 1995.
Last year, the Bush administration tried to cut the program's budget in half to $265 million, but an outcry from lawmakers prompted Congress to keep the same funding level.
As the number of illegal immigrants has increased, the program has expanded.
More than 400 state and local governments nationwide filed claims last year, up from 10 in 1995, according to the Justice Department.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he will bring up the issue later this month when he meets with Ashcroft.
" Im disappointed SCAAP funding was eliminated, " Kyl said. " This funding is vital to reimbursing states and localities for costs that are a federal responsibility. "
Since 1997, the number of criminal immigrants in Arizona has increased more than 1,000 to 3,900, state figures show.
Illegal immigrants represent about 14 percent of state prisoners. The increase is due in part to the federal crackdown along the border that has resulted in record numbers of arrests in recent years.
The matter won't be settled until later this year when Congress reviews Bush's $2.13 trillion budget proposal.
What angers state officials most about any move to end the program is that federal funds cover just 40 cents of every dollar states spend to house criminal immigrants, according to the Justice Department.
In Arizona, the federal money doesn't even go that far. For every dollar spent, the state gets back 33 cents from the federal government, said Robert Olding, the assistant director of programs and services for the state Department of Corrections.
" Arizona taxpayers are stuck with much of the bill, " Olding said.
Cochise County $281,727
City of Mesa $362,721
Navajo County $74,741
Pima County $733,848
Yavapai County $128,793
Gila County $16,088
Maricopa County $3,177,429
Mohave County $79,380
Pinal County $147,180
Yuma County $347,262
Total $ 23,814,068
Source: U.S. Justice Dept.