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ACLU: Local taxpayers paying for federal immigration enforcement

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Police and sheriff's departments are spending local taxpayer money to enforce federal immigration laws, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

In a report released today, titled “Costs and Consequences: The High Price of Policing Immigrant Communities,” the ACLU runs several dollars-and-cents equations [PDF] on what particular counties and cities are spending to arrest, detain and prosecute illegal immigrants.

Many cases involving this population begin as minor traffic violations before growing into questions of legal residency. Therefore, the organization argues, law enforcement agencies can reduce the number of non-criminal illegal immigrants they pay to hold by not focusing officers on violations like driving without a valid license. (Disclosure: The report also cites California Watch’s past reporting on vehicle impounds at sobriety checkpoints.)

The bigger question of whether California’s local police will enforce immigration law has already been answered.

Ninety percent of the state’s counties have formally partnered with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement through the “Secure Communities” program [PDF] to check if inmates are legal residents. All but six rural counties (Del Norte, Siskiyou, Trinity, Lassen, Sierra and Alpine) have hooked into the Enforcement Case Tracking System, a central database of federal immigration records.

The database allows local police to check inmates’ legal status by running their fingerprints. When the system makes a match, officers learn a suspect’s entire documented immigration history. They also learn whether ICE wants to place a “hold” on the suspect, which requires the police agency to detain the individual until immigration agents can take custody.

These holds, and the related expense, are among the main concerns the ACLU discusses in its report. It states:

ICE provides limited reimbursement only for immigrant detainees who have been convicted of one felony or two misdemeanor offenses and who are held for at least 4 consecutive days. Therefore, available reimbursements do not cover the actual costs of holding pre-conviction immigration detainees. In Sacramento County, screening and arraignment, including pretrial jail booking and incarceration, averaged $1,948 per arrestee in 2005 and 2006. Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County estimates a cost of approximately $100 per day to hold inmates and charges $250 for booking individuals in its facilities. While localities expect to cover these hefty costs for most of their inmates, agencies that choose to respond to ICE detainers for inmates not convicted of a felony (or two misdemeanors) must bear the additional cost.

Partnerships like Secure Communities remove dangerous offenders who aren’t allowed to be in the United States, no matter who pays. To that point, in a press release last month, ICE announced in the previous year the program led to the deportation of 192 illegal immigrants from Sacramento County who’d been convicted of “serious or violent climes, such as murder, sexual assault and robbery.”

Of course, local agencies ensnare a large number of non-criminal illegal immigrants, too.

Recent reporting by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that 42 percent of the individuals detained through Secure Communities in Florida had no criminal convictions.

The ACLU of Northern California’s report tells the stories of several individuals, including a legal citizen, detained in the course of local immigration enforcement. However, this examination separates itself from similar efforts by assessing the monetary impact on public safety agencies.

“We wanted to highlight the opportunity to save these scarce and important public safety resources by showing alternative practices to a whole range of decisions that are made in the day-to-day life of a law enforcement officer,” said Julia Mass, the report’s co-author and a staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.

Police departments can reduce the number of non-criminal immigrants they detain, the report contends, even while teaming with ICE.

Among the anecdotes and case studies in the report, the ACLU looked at police efforts in Sacramento County to reduce the number of arrests for driving without a license. In 2008, sheriff’s deputies made more than 600 such arrests, referred to as “VC 12500” based on the statute’s vehicle code number; in 2010 police cited 185.

“The county’s notable decrease of VC 12500 arrests from an average of 503 per year between 2002 and 2009 saved the county and its tax payers over $168,000,” the report said. “Citing and releasing all VC 12500 violations in 2010 would have saved the County an additional $95,000.”


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