The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday, May 8, that would increase local municipalities’ eligibility for federal reimbursement of the costs incurred from incarcerating criminal illegal aliens.
If the legislation makes it through the Senate and is signed into law by the president, it could mean millions of dollars in federal aid for Suffolk County.
“This is a step in the right direction that relieves local taxpayers of a burden that they should not have to absorb,” U.S. Representative Tim Bishop said just before the bill was passed by the House. “It is a problem that is imposed on local communities by the failure of the federal government to enact comprehensive immigration reform or fix what everyone believes is a broken system.”
The bill addresses the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. When the program started in 1994, municipalities could be reimbursed for all costs associated with holding illegal immigrants who were charged with a felony or two misdemeanors, Mr. Bishop said. However, in 2003, the Department of Justice reinterpreted the program so states could receive reimbursement only if the alleged criminals were convicted.
Under the current system, Suffolk County spent approximately $12 million in 2006 to incarcerate 10 to 12 percent of the county’s jail population, which was made up of undocumented immigrants, according to an estimate from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. The Suffolk County Legislature sent a letter to the Long Island delegation to Congress in March asking that they address the financial burden of incarcerating and supervising criminal undocumented immigrants.
If approved, the new law, an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, will restore eligibility for the reimbursement of incarceration costs for illegal immigrants regardless of whether or not they are convicted.
Mr. Bishop said he favored the bill because illegal immigration is a growing federal problem affecting local communities, and also because the Suffolk County Legislature asked for his help.
“The county is left having to shoulder the burden of something that is really a federal issue and the results of the federal government’s failure to enforce its own laws,”
County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said this week. He added that the costs have gone up substantially, and the county will appreciate any help it can get.
Congress allocated $773 million in 2008 for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, Mr. Bishop noted. He also pointed out that President Bush’s budget request for the 2009 fiscal year would provide no money for the program.
“The president’s position, in my opinion, is simply indefensible,” Mr. Bishop said. “The Congress will need to act where the president has failed to.”
A companion bill is already in the Senate, however, the president may veto it. Mr. Bishop declined to guess at what the president would do, though he said it would be both a public policy and political mistake to veto it.