State lawmakers will consider whether to continue spending tens of millions of dollars a year to arrest illegal immigrants when the legislative session begins next week with Arizona's government in a $3 billion hole.
Immigration enforcement joins education, health care and the arts as parts of the state budget likely to receive funding cuts.
All state funding under the Legislature's purview must be considered for cuts, including immigration enforcement, said Rep. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler.
"We're all gonna just die over some of these things that are going to have to be cut," Yarbrough said.
However, Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, pledges to protect money for operations that target illegal immigrants and to provide additional cash for the Maricopa County sheriff's controversial crackdowns.
"Sheriff Joe (Arpaio) is going to get his $1.6 million back to go after human smuggling," said Pearce, incoming chairman of the Senate appropriations committee.
"In tough times or not, you can't ignore killings and murders and maiming that are going on," Pearce said of violence related to illegal immigration. "And you can't back away from those commitments to do something about it."
Spending on illegal immigrant arrests is particularly vulnerable because during the past three years it has grown very large, very fast. The Gang Intelligence and Immigration Team Enforcement - or "GIITEM" - program has $9 million dollars in surplus, said Phil Case, budget director for the state Department of Public Safety.
"We think they're going to want their money back," Case said.
"You don't even want to admit that you have a sofa," he said, "much less that there might be something under the cushions."
The Legislature reconvenes Monday as Arizona's economy struggles through a historic slump and tax revenue shrivels.
State Treasurer Dean Martin said he estimates that for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, the Legislature must remove $1.5 billion in spending to balance the budget. And the following fiscal year brings an additional $1.5 billion deficit that lawmakers must eliminate before closing the upcoming session.
Immigration enforcement will at least lose some of its funding, roughly $7 million, Pearce said.
GIITEM received $6.4 million a year when dedicated solely to domestic criminal groups, budget records show. But in 2006, the state Department of Public Safety expanded the anti-gang program to include immigration enforcement. Lawmakers more than quadrupled its funding.
That money, $32 million this year, paid for DPS border officers and $10 million in grants for local police departments to form specialized teams to arrest illegal immigrants, Case said.
The program partnered with the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa and Pima county sheriffs' offices.
But the public safety department could not find enough local police agencies to take the grants, leaving millions of dollars unspent, Case said.
"Other agencies had difficulties, by and large, committing manpower to the task force because it meant they were being diverted from their other statutorial responsibilities," he said.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office didn't have such problems. Arpaio transferred 15 patrol deputies and detectives to the human smuggling unit, which enforces immigration law exclusively.
A Tribune investigation, published in July, found the sheriff's office transferred deputies to the specialized unit without replacing them in the field. Emergency response times slowed and arrest rates plummeted after the sheriff's office began the immigration enforcement.
DPS awarded the sheriff's office $2.2 million in grants the previous two years for anti-human smuggling work.
Regardless, the sheriff's office only cashed checks for half of those dollars.
Deputies failed to file the required paperwork for $590,000 before the grant expired last May. And that same month, Gov. Janet Napolitano took away another $600,000 intended for the sheriff's human smuggling unit to instead spend on serving felony warrants.
"I'm very happy I can get this money back," Arpaio said of Pearce's pledge to provide new funding.
The sheriff's office is now fighting to avoid steep budget cuts by the county.
Arpaio said Tuesday that his deputies will continue to enforce state and federal immigration law despite funding losses. "A new operation is imminent," the sheriff said.
After Napolitano diverted the grant money, the sheriff's office launched a series of large-scale operations across the Valley to arrest illegal immigrants. Arpaio characterized the crackdowns as acts of defiance against the governor.