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Why ICE requests to detain immigrants are costing local governments big money
Study says feds only reimburse small portion of expense of holding undocumented immigrants
A view of the Federal Detention Center Tuesday, June 19, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. - photo by Associated Press

A Georgia Budget and Policy Institute report published Thursday estimates local governments spend roughly $9 million annually statewide honoring federal immigration requests to detain immigrants, while only being reimbursed partly from the federal government.

The Georgia nonprofit took information from local governments regarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers ­— requests from federal immigration officials to hold a person in local custody for up to 48 hours past when they would be released on local charges — and used national information to make estimates on what these detainers cost. 

Hall, Gwinnett, Cobb and Whitfield counties are members of the 287(g) program, a partnership between local and federal agencies to identify undocumented immigrants for possible removal.

“The impetus is that there are many local governments in Georgia, nationwide for that matter, that are weighing how best to navigate this tricky and sometimes contentious issue of local immigration enforcement,” said Wesley Tharpe, the research director for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “Our sense was that that debate often takes place in the absence of sound budget numbers and with a lot of ... political rhetoric and people maybe making assumptions and those sorts of things. We wanted to add some information to the debate to lift up some of the financial cost as well as the long-term social and economic costs of these programs.”

The report notes the cost to local governments has ebbed and flowed with the changing federal approaches to immigration enforcement.

Between 2008 and 2017, the peak number of detainers issued to Georgia local governments was 13,778 in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s first term. The estimated detainer cost was more than $18 million, and the federal State Criminal Alien Assistance Program award that year was $1.3 million.

Tharpe said the president’s aggressive approach fell off during his second term, where the administration shifted to a focus on immigrants with violent criminal records and those more recently entering the country.

In 2015, Obama’s administration implemented the Priority Enforcement Program, which created priority tiers for federal immigration officials to follow.

In 2016, the number of local detainers dropped to 1,960, with the detainer cost dropping to $2.6 million. The federal award that year was more than $700,000, meaning the reimbursement was 28.4 percent of the total detainer cost.

“What we’ve seen under President (Donald) Trump is a shift back to indiscriminate enforcement, where unauthorized immigrants are sought to be arrested and deported regardless of how long they’ve lived in the country or regardless of the severity of their infraction,” Tharpe said.

As a result, the number of detainers for Georgia localities was 6,279 in 2017, and the cost was $8.3 million.

The report uses the state jail facilities’ estimate of $60.35 spent on average per inmate per day and uses the estimate from the Colorado Fiscal Institute of 22 estimated additional days held per inmate.

According to the report, complying with the ICE detainers raises costs for the local government because there are more arrests for offenses that would usually result in a ticket.

“In Hall County, for example, the sheriff’s department arrested and transferred to ICE 98 unauthorized immigrants for minor traffic violations over a four-month period in early 2017, according to an open records request. These individuals accounted for 54 percent of the people Hall County transferred to ICE over that span,” according to the report.

Costs also go up because of longer jail stays instead of being released on bond, according to the report.

The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, estimates that 30 percent of children in Hall County live in a home with an undocumented immigrant.

“Unauthorized immigrants are in many cases the main or sole breadwinner for their household, so removing someone for driving without a license or some other minor infraction can create a financial disaster for families. National research indicates deporting an undocumented parent can reduce household income by as much as 70 percent,” according to the report.

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