WASHINGTON - While a new Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants is attracting all the attention for its focus on targeting illegal immigrants, communities across the country have long focused on identifying those here illegally and alerting federal authorities.
But communities across the country for years have focused on identifying illegal immigrants and alerting U.S. authorities.
In fact, the practice is induced by federal programs, which marry local law enforcement's knowledge of its community with federal know-how and hundreds of millions of dollars in training and reimbursement dollars, according to immigration experts.
Under one program, communities compete for hundreds of millions of federal dollars by identifying illegal immigrant convicts they've jailed. Problem is, some 20 percent of people identified turn out to not be illegal immigrants -- and many are actually citizens, according to a White House report.
The program, State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, pays municipalities for identifying and reporting convicted illegal immigrants jailed in their communities. Dating back to 1994, the Justice Department-run initiative has become a major source of revenue for struggling communities.
It's also a textbook case of pork barrel spending: The Bush and Obama administrations tried for 10 years to ax the program, pointing out its ineffectiveness, but strenuous congressional support keeps the money flowing. This year President Barack Obama's budget called for $330 million for SCAAP, and senators quickly introduced a bill to provide almost $1 billion a year for the program.
The program also leads communities to identify illegal immigrants to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division (ICE) that they otherwise wouldn't, according to experts.
"It creates a strong incentive for a jail or prison to try to determine if someone's an illegal immigrant because if they can, they can get this money from the federal government," said Steven Camarota, research director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that supports tighter border security. "Without the SCAAP program there'd certainly be less incentive to identify illegal immigrants."
Last year it paid out paid out over $393 million, according to SCAAP funding records obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request. Other findings from the documents include:
-- The number of illegal inmates confirmed by ICE rose from 106,725 in fiscal year 2007 to 174,559 two years later.
-- The state of California and its communities received the bulk of funds from the program in fiscal year 2009. Over 40 percent of the federal program -- some $158,982,452 -- went to California. New York towns, counties and the state collected $46,441,571, or 11.8 percent. Texas recipients raked in $29,353,868, or 7.5 percent. Meanwhile, Arizona beneficiaries received $19,152,396, less than five percent of the program's funds.
-- The reimbursement rates varied significantly. Overall, government entities received $15.29 per day for the 25.7 million days spent by almost 175,000 illegal immigrants in fiscal year 2009. Hitting the jackpot was Surry County, N.C., which received $12,107 for one illegal inmate's five-days of imprisonment -- a reimbursement rate of $2,421 a day. Conversely, Claiborne Parish, La. received $1,223 for an inmate kept 363 days, a paltry $3.37 per day.
SCAAP has become a symbol of the federal government's ineffectiveness at controlling the borders, experts say.
Illustrating the disorganization: Only 30 percent of the names turned in under the program in 2002 could be confirmed as illegal immigrants by ICE, according to a White House critique of the program posted at (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/expectmore/detail/10001096.2003.html#questions)
Twenty percent of the inmates turn out to be "definitely ineligible" for the program, and many are U.S. citizens or are otherwise lawfully in the United States, according to the White House. Fifty percent are unverifiable by ICE.
"We don't really have a thoughtful approach to how to deal with local communities and states undergoing demographic changes due to immigration," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a Washington D.C.-based immigration advocacy group. "All we talk about is whether they're here legally and who pays -- which is what the SCAAP program does."
At the same time, federal authorities and immigration experts have been at loggerheads about whether or not SCAAP funds should be more closely tied with other existing efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants.
Currently, names submitted under SCAAP may be filed in the year after the individual has been arrested -- meaning that sometimes the information reaches ICE officials long after the inmate has been released, according to a 2007 audit of the program by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.
In the audit, ICE officials called the program "misguided," saying it "does nothing to further the removal of undocumented criminal aliens currently in the United States." They said they want the SCAAP dollars to be tied to another immigration initiative that trains local law enforcement to search national illegal immigrant databases while the suspect is in custody. Sharry criticized that initiative for driving a wedge between community cops and illegal immigrants.
Another recent federal initiative, "Secure Communities," seeks real-time information about illegal immigrants from local law enforcement. It's too early to tell if Secure Communities will focus "tightly on real bad guys," or if it will blanket all illegal immigrants, Sharry said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security declined interview requests for this article. Richard Rocha, ICE deputy press secretary, also declined to answer questions about the program. The U.S. Justice Department, which administers the program through its Bureau of Justice Assistance, also declined interview requests.
Rocha said in a statement that ICE pursues "smart, effective immigration enforcement and prioritizes the removal of convicted criminal aliens. Public safety is enhanced when local law enforcement agencies work with ICE to identify and remove criminal aliens."