Wednesday, October 16, 2013

News flash: Using county jails to score political points on immigration costly to taxpayers

Counties are spending millions to house undocumented immigrants in local jails, reported the Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom yesterday, but the story regrettably failed to make clear that much of that cost is volitional, not the result of a federal mandate. "Texas county jails spent more than $156.6 million housing more than 131,000 undocumented immigrants with federal detainers between October 2011 and September 2013, according to state jail commission data," said Grissom's lede. (Here's the actual report from the Commission on Jail Standards showing county-level details.)

Some of that would have been spent anyway for housing serious offenders awaiting trial, but the so-called Secure Communities program allows counties to seek detainers locking up even low-level traffic offenders and petty misdemeanants who would otherwise be released on low bail or personal bonds. An Austin Statesman analysis back in 2012 found that, "in Travis County, twice as many people have been deported after a misdemeanor arrest in recent years than have been deported after a felony arrest." At the time, Grits responded to the Statesman story with this analysis:
This is a great example why immigration enforcement is one of the last remaining hopes of private-prison interests that incarceration rates might continue to increase. Secure Communities is one of the few recent drivers of increased incarceration in an era when Texas county jails have otherwise experienced population declines, just as immigration detainees are the largest growth sector among federal prisoners. Thus, as is so often the case (see: mental health issues for another example), the program amounts to the state using the criminal justice system as a substitute for rationalizing policies overall - in this case, once and for all implementing immigration reform. Who gets a traffic ticket is a stupid way to choose who may get deported. The process should be a bit more thoughtful and less random than that.
In Grissom's story, Sen. Tommy Williams said he passed legislation mandating the data gathering to pressure the feds to reimburse the state. But IMO there's little justification for the feds reimbursing incarceration costs for a) serious offenders who'd be jailed awaiting trial anyway or b) low-level offenders who would otherwise be released on bond or, in the case of Class C violators, merely given a ticket. The Obama Administration last year clarified that many if not most of these detainers are not actually required by the feds. Even so, Texas pols have been falling over themselves to demonstrate how anti-immigrant they are - witness the Lt. Governor's race where the big issue has become taking away educational opportunities for children of undocumented immigrants who grew up attending Texas schools. Similarly, some county officials have become overzealous, using the Secure Communities program at the jail to shore up their nativist credentials. That's their choice, not the Obama Administration's.

Grits believes local taxpayers should pay for the consequences of politically driven, spendthrift decisions by county officials. Indeed, I wonder if at some point this newly required reporting may backfire. Will there be a Sheriff's race soon where an incumbent faces blowback from voters because overuse of immigration detainers caused tax increases to pay for jail costs? It wouldn't shock me. Which do GOP primary voters dislike more: Higher taxes or undocumented immigrants who contribute billions to the economy? Judging by the Lite Guv's race, candidates' polling must be telling them primary voters presently disdain the latter more than the former. But there's a tension between the desire for low taxes and this penchant for Big Government Conservatism and I won't be surprised if, at some point in the near future - perhaps starting with the business community, who have the most to lose from deporting workers and customers who pose no serious threat - those priorities shift.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your weekly open borders screed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for your daily, thought-free retort. Don't like it? Why do you read?