American taxpayers paid approximately $1.87 billion to house imprisoned illegal immigrants in fiscal year 2014, and almost all of that financial burden was shouldered by the states, according to a new study of state and federal data.
Illegal-immigrant crime has been in the national spotlight in recent weeks. Donald Trump gave the issue an incendiary political charge when announcing his presidential campaign, with much-publicized remarks about “rapists” immigrating from Mexico and spreading “drugs” and “crime” to the U.S. in the process. The new report undermines Trump’s overly broad assertions and provides more precise information about the costs associated with incarcerating illegal-immigrant criminals in the U.S.
“The declining funds have led to a situation where many counties are choosing to opt out of SCAAP reimbursement, since it only pays a fraction of the costs associated with incarcerating illegal aliens,” Jay Bates, a Texas Tech University School of Law graduate and freelance researcher, writes in his report.
Because many state and local jurisdictions refuse to participate in SCAAP, the cost of holding inmates is far higher than the federal program’s figures suggest. In 2013, for instance, then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst (R., Texas) calculated that Texas had imprisoned 130,000 illegal immigrants over the previous two years, at a cost of $137 million — almost as much as the federal government sets aside for reimbursements across the country.
Ninety-two percent, or $1.71 billion, of the $1.87 billion spent on such incarcerations last year came from states.
The dramatic effects such costs have on state budgets and law enforcement are exacerbated by policies designed to defy federal immigration statutes. About 72,000 non-citizen inmates are imprisoned in California, but state and local law-enforcement agencies only receive federal reimbursement for just over half of them — 37,587. About 25,000 of them are held in state prisons. And yet, a state that has released thousands of criminals early in order to mitigate the overpopulation of prisons has gone out of its way not to deport criminal immigrants.
“In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that reduced the maximum penalty for misdemeanor convictions from 365 days to 364 days,” the report says. “This has the effect of circumventing federal laws that make a non-citizen deportable if he is convicted of certain crimes with a possible sentence of 365 or more days. Put simply, California is doing everything it can to avoid federal deportation of non-citizen criminals.”
Trump capitalized on the frustration over such policies when he announced his candidacy. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said in June. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Bates has no patience for such statements. “The statistics don’t back up his claims,” he tells NR. “We have a limited snapshot into the actual problem of undocumented or non-citizen incarceration. We don’t have any breakdown of the crimes that are being committed. We certainly don’t have any basis for saying they commit more crimes per capita than any other demographic of the population. There’s no statistically valid basis for saying that, at all.”
In 2009, the Center for Immigration Studies made a similar point, though less conclusively. “The overall picture of immigrants and crime remains confused due to a lack of good data and contrary information,” CIS found. “However, the newer government data indicate that there are legitimate public safety reasons for local law enforcement to work with federal immigration authorities.”The most prominent source for such data — the Government Accountability Office — relies on flawed statistical samples to produce its analysis. Private studies based on the GAO reports “cannot be taken as valid metrics or data points on which to build an argument about the pervasiveness or ubiquity of illegal aliens and violent crimes, drug crimes, and the like,” Bates writes.
That points to another problem that Bates identifies: government policies, such as those in California, make it increasingly difficult to find such data. “Data is compiled by various federal agencies, spread out across multiple reports, and it does not accurately or fully represent the true extent of enforcement or crime,” the report says. “The federal government’s failure to act on illegal immigration, and its utter incompetence at evolving its methods of enforcement, has led to state after state picking up the tab. Citizens are being taxed twice for illegal immigration; once by the federal government for lackadaisical enforcement, and a second time by their state and municipal governments for the costs associated with incarcerating criminal non-citizens.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.