National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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How to Save Your Local Public Safety Budget

April 01, 2011 - Posted by Lena Graber



Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on the dire funding situation for law enforcement in Camden, New Jersey.  “Callers to 911 who report things like home burglaries or car break-ins are asked to file a report over the phone or at police headquarters; officers rarely respond in person. “If it doesn’t need a gun and a badge at that location,” officers are not sent, the city’s police chief, J. Scott Thomson, said last week.”


Around the country, local budgets are making painful cuts, and fundamental public safety services like police and firefighters are getting hatcheted.  Dallas, TX; Mesa, AZ; Lynnwood, WA; Oakland, CA, Tulsa, OK, and Norton, MA… The Police Executive Research Forum reported at the end of 2010 that more than half of all the police departments they surveyed are going through major cuts, to an average of 7% of their budgets.


At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security is putting more pressure on local law enforcement agencies and jails to help them enforce federal immigration laws.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs many programs that depend on local jurisdictions holding immigrants in local jails, and the temporary detention of immigrants for the federal government can be a significant financial burden for cities and counties, according to a new analysis by the National Immigration Forum.


The way this happens seems at first to be technical and complicated, but is actually quite simple.  When ICE learns that a local jail has a non-citizen in their custody (such as through the Secure Communities program, the Criminal Alien Program, the 287(g) Program, or some other informal collaboration between local police and ICE) ICE files a detainer, requesting that jail to hold the person for two extra days, so that ICE has the opportunity to come take custody of the person and put him or her into deportation proceedings.  This may apply regardless of whether the immigrant is documented or undocumented.  In fact, detainers have even been erroneously lodged against U.S. Citizens, over whom ICE has no jurisdiction.


Well, those two extra days in city jail cost the city money, which ICE does not reimburse.  In New York City, where the cost of each person’s single day in jail is $170, those extra 48 hours for holding people on ICE detainers may cost more than $1.3 million per year.  


In reality, the cost of detainers is far greater than the cost of just two days in jail, according to the Forum’s analysis.  Detainers are widely misused, frequently resulting in prolonged unlawful detention far beyond 48 hours per person.  An immigration detainer is not a warrant or a basis for arrest, but it is not uncommon for immigrants to be stopped by police and brought to a jail simply so that ICE can lodge a detainer against them.  This practice results in immigrants being jailed without even being charged with a crime.

Immigrants facing criminal charges, both major and quite minor, are commonly denied bail due to a detainer.  As a result, many immigrants who are not dangerous and would otherwise be released spend weeks in jail before their criminal trial.  And jailing people is very expensive.  


It’s worth emphasizing that this is not about serious criminals who are a public safety hazard.  People charged with violent crimes are often ineligible for bail, regardless of citizenship.  People charged with offenses like public drunkenness or trespassing are usually released, and told to show up to court in a month—that is, unless they are immigrants with a detainer against them, in which case they’ll probably spend that entire month in jail, at an enormous cost to the county budget, not to mention to the immigrants and their families.


So in Irving, Texas, where the county budget for 2010-11 faces a $20 million shortfall, the county should perhaps consider scaling back on the way it collaborates with ICE, and exactly how much it is willing to spend holding immigrants on detainers.  And Camden, where recent layoffs have left the city with fewer police on the force than any time since 1949, ought to take a look at who exactly they are holding for ICE, and if that’s an essential part of their law enforcement budget. 


Image: iStockphoto/helenecanada

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