You pay nearly $1B a year to house illegal immigrant prisoners

You pay nearly $1B a year to house illegal immigrant prisoners »Play Video
California prisoners walk along the fence line at North Kern State Prison in Delano.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A staggering number of illegal immigrants are housed in California's prisons and jails, and it's taxpayers who foot the huge bill.

Eyewitness News investigated the numbers and asked lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington what can be done.

Eyewitness News obtained data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from the end of December 2010. According to those tables, there were 16,902 inmates on hold for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There were also 3,962 prisoners listed as potential ICE holds.

Together, that makes 20,864 inmates, which is about 13 percent of California's total inmate population of 162,821 on that date.

"These are foreign-born inmates," CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton told Eyewitness News. "Or unlawfully present."

The data shows where all the inmates come from, and it's across the globe.

For example, 10 inmates in California prisons then were from Afghanistan, eight of those here illegally. One inmate is listed from Congo. Nine from Egypt are reported in the U.S. Illegally. There's one inmate from Finland, listed as on ICE hold.

Thornton said CDCR estimates the average cost to house any inmate is $44,563 a year. If that amount is multiplied by the 20,864 illegal immigrants it's a total cost of $929,762,432.

"It's almost a billion dollars when you do the math," said Bakersfield Assemblywoman Shannon Grove. The Republican lawmaker, representing the 32nd District, said that cost is a big worry.

"It's too much money," echoed state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield. He's been working on legislation to deal with prison medical costs.

And Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, said it's a concern she's had for a long time.

"It's very difficult for people to conceive the size of the problem," Fuller said.

Of the immigrants in state prison, the most come from Mexico, according to the CDCR data. As of December 2010, they show a total of 15,985 inmates from our neighbor to the south. Of those, 1,928 are listed as being here legally, having no ICE hold.

Another 14,057 California prisoners are illegal immigrants from Mexico that are on an ICE hold or potential hold.

Next comes El Salvador, with a total of 1,231 inmates in state prisons. The list shows 113 are in the United States legally, and 1,118 are not.

Kern County Jails

Eyewitness News also checked the data for Kern County jails. Their data is collected a bit differently, and more of their inmates will be housed for less that a full year.

Sgt. Ian Silva told Eyewitness News the latest figures available are for the year 2009. Silva said based on information from the U.S. Department of Justice, it's believed there were 964 illegal immigrant inmates in Kern's jails that year.

Silva said they were in custody an average of 51.7 days.

The county uses an estimated average cost per inmate of $134.12 a day. Putting that math together, it's estimated housing illegal immigrants in Kern's jails cost $6.6 million in 2009.

State Lawmaker Reaction?

With the tab for illegal immigrants in state prisons at nearly $930 million, are there any answers?

"Quite frankly, if someone is here illegally and they break the law, they should be sent to whatever country they are legally from," Rubio said.

Fuller sees things the same way, and sees an obstacle.

"If the federal government would make a special deal with many other countries that there would be an automatic export of prisoners under certain circumstances, I think that would help tremendously," Fuller said.

CDCR's Thornton said by law, inmates must serve their entire sentence. But, what if they could serve out the rest of that sentence in their home country? Thornton said under California law, the governor or his designee is authorized to give approval for foreign prisoner transfers.

She said the U.S. Department of Justice administers the International Prisoner Transfer Program.

"The rules are a combination of treaties, conventions, federal and states' laws," Thornton explained.

"In calendar year 2010, the Board of Parole Hearings received 339 foreign prisoner transfer requests, and 718 requests were denied," Thornton clarified in an email. "The reason the number denied is higher than the number received, is some of those 718 were submissions from previous years. Five were transferred to their home countries. Keep in mind that most disapproved cases are due to treaty criteria."

How Serious Are the Crimes?

Bakersfield lawmaker Rubio likes the idea of transferring foreign prisoners to their home countries to serve out a sentence, but only for lesser crimes.

"We have a revolving door with respect to sending violent criminals to their countries, and then they just end up coming back to the U.S. and specifically California," Rubio worries.

Eyewitness News checked the CDCR data on murder. The stats for the period ending December 2010 show 7,150 prisoners held for first-degree murder. Of those, 5,987 are listed as legal and the other 1,163 inmates are either on ICE hold or potential hold.

Those prisoners were convicted of committing murder while apparently being in the U.S. illegally.

"We have to urge the Federal government to do a better job of protecting our borders," Rubio said. "The data I've seen is that if we just send them across the border, they'll come back."

Federal Response?

Border protection is the key issue, according to Congressman Kevin McCarthy.

"There's no question illegal immigration continues to be a large and costly problem in California and around the nation," McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, told Eyewitness News via email. "The first and most important step to addressing this problem is securing our border. The federal government can and should do more to ensure our border is secure, including more physical barriers, border patrol and electronic surveillance."

Congressman Jim Costa also responded.

"California cannot and should not have to shoulder this burden alone," the Central Valley Democrat replied in a statement. "That's why I'm fighting to bring more of our tax dollars home to California by significantly increasing federal funding for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, a program I urged Congress to create as a state legislator."

Both California senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein responded that they are also backing that funding program. Both have urged full funding for SCAAP to the authorized level of $950 million a year, after funding dropped much lower in recent federal budgets.

However even at $950 million, those funds would be spread across the nation. California typically gets about 40 percent of these funds, according to Washington observers, but the dollars never cover the total costs for housing illegal immigrant inmates.

"California is estimated to spend nearly $1 billion statewide to incarcerate undocumented criminal aliens," reads a May 11 letter from supporting congressmen. "Yet the state is reimbursed under SCAAP for less than 10 percent of these expenses."

Deporting Illegal Immigrants

Once an immigrant has finished serving a sentence in a California prison, their case is turned over to ICE for a hearing to determine if they will be deported.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice tells Eyewitness News there is a new program that allows quicker deportation. This is only for lower-level crimes, and only if the defendant agrees formally not to fight deportation.

Kice said several states are participating, but not California. Many communities in California are participating in the new "Secure Communities" program that allows faster identification of possible illegal immigrants by federal authorities.

"I think we're doing a better job at identifying these people when they come into state prisons and local jails," Kice said.

Who Pays?

Some advocates for illegal immigrants say they do pay taxes, which help cover costs for all government services including prisons. Of course, immigrants pay sales tax, and some say they also pay income tax.

If an illegal immigrant uses a bogus social security number, for example, they may have taxes withheld but not be able to get a refund they might be entitled to.

Others say, many illegal immigrants who work "under the table" don't contribute income tax, of course.

"FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) estimates that state and local taxes from illegal aliens amount to $4 billion per year," reads a statement from this group. "This does not come close to offsetting the total costs of illegal immigration, especially in California, where illegal immigration costs the state $21.8 billion a year."

Paying the Cost

State lawmakers say the costs are too high, especially in such lean budget years.

"We take money from schools, but we won't address this," Grove complained. "We take money from Aging and Adult Services."

Grove said it's time to get serious about the costs and the problems.

"Anything that you can do to make the phone calls," she added.

She hopes for more attention. And Rubio wants the feds to do their part.

"We need to get reimbursed 100 percent from the federal government," Rubio said.

And Fuller agreed with that.

"What that means is the federal government requires us to actually house these inmates, but there's no funding stream for us to do so," Fuller said. "We're going to have to address this issue."