February 9, 2005
Gov. Janet Napolitano is telling the newly chosen U.S. attorney general to either pay Arizona’s $118 million bill for housing illegal immigrants or take them off the state’s hands.
In a letter to Alberto Gonzales, Napolitano said the Justice Department has all but ignored its obligation under federal law to either take custody of criminals not in this country legally or pick up the costs to the state.
That, said Napolitano, totaled more than $71 million in 2003. Arizona received less than $6.9 million.
It may soon get worse: The budget submitted to Congress by President Bush on Monday proposes eliminating all payments to states.
White House spokesman Taylor Gross said Bush believes the $300 million now being paid can be better spent on other programs to catch criminals smuggling drugs into the country. He also said the president wants $3.9 billion next fiscal year for immigration enforcement, a $453 million increase.
Napolitano said she wants an answer from Gonzales by Feb. 24. Tim Nelson, her legal counsel, would not say what the governor will do if the money is not forthcoming.
"We’ve got a lot of options we’re considering,’’ he said.
Nelson said that could include packing up the more than 3,600 illegal entrants now in the state prison, sending them "somewhere.’’ Where, though, he’s not saying.
"But let them free?’’ he continued. "No.’’
The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program says the Department of Justice is supposed to contract with states to cover the cost of incarcerating illegal entrants who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison. If there is no contract, the law says the federal government will "take the undocumented criminal aliens into . . . custody.’’
Neither has happened.
"The attorney general has simply paid our state Department of Corrections a lump sum, on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis,’’ Napolitano wrote to Gonzales. "That lump sum bears no relationship whatsoever to the state’s actual average costs of incarcerating criminal aliens.’’
For example, she said, on an average day last year there were an average of 3,642 illegal entrants — more than one out of every nine of the 32,418 inmates in the state prison system. She said the actual cost of housing inmates is $53.44 a day; the federal government’s payments were only $17.12.
Eric Holland, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the agency will review Napolitano’s letter "very carefully.’’