Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., was almost apologetic last week as he announced a $9.08 million federal grant to reimburse the state and its counties for jailing criminals who also are illegal immigrants.
Hayworth admitted the money is a tiny portion of the actual cost to incarcerate inmates from other countries. The Arizona Department of Corrections estimates taxpayers spent $76.8 million this fiscal year to imprison nearly 3,800 foreign nationals. But the state’s share of the new grant is only $6.8 million.
In fact, Congress has never fully funded the program even though federal lawmakers first said in 1994 that states shouldn’t have to shoulder this burden because they don’t set immigration policy nor patrol the borders. For three years, President Bush has proposed eliminating the funds while congressional budget writers have set aside some money.
Hayworth said the lack of support year after year is why he supports a bill that not only would more than triple the federal grant program, but would declare police officers and sheriff’s deputies equal partners with federal agents in the enforcement of immigration laws.
The Clear Law Enforcement of Criminal Aliens Act of 2003 would require local police agencies to create policies for detecting and arresting illegal immigrants. Agencies that refused to adopt such policies would lose all federal funding. Conversely, the bill would provide $9 billion to pay for police training on immigration policy and for covering the cost of detaining illegal immigrants until federal agents can deport them.
"Police officers say they don’t have the resources and they don’t have the time," said Hayworth, whose district covers Scottsdale, Tempe and Ahwatukee Foothills. "But then you end up with the absurdities of the catch-andrelease situation. ‘Ah gee, we just won’t enforce that law today, we just don’t have enough people.’ "
The bill was introduced last fall with support from more than one quarter of the members of the House of Representatives including two other Arizona Republicans, John Shadegg and Trent Franks. But the bill stalled under a barrage of criticism from law enforcement groups.
East Valley police officials have said having their officers enforce immigrations laws could discourage victims from stepping forward and could make it harder to solve crimes.
"We’re stretched," Tempe Police Chief Ralph Tranter said. "We have a high crime rate in Arizona. We’re leading in auto theft around the country. We’re dealing with emerging issues such as (the) mentally ill and Child Protective Services. I have a concern with adding this to the responsibilities for our street officers and our street supervisors."
But Hayworth and other supporters of the bill argue crime is strongly linked to the presence of illegal immigrants, which some police agencies have acknowledged. Hayworth said there’s an estimated 80,000 felons who have been ordered to leave the country but federal agents have been unable to find.
Gov. Janet Napolitano has said she generally supports federal efforts to deal with illegal border crossings. But Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer said a debate over immigration reform shouldn’t distract Congress from its responsibility to provide more incarceration funds.
"We need to recognize that saying to states, ‘You should do this,’ and then not providing the resources in which to do it, just doesn’t work," L’Ecuyer said.