County governments cash in on holding illegal immigrants

Howard took in about $700,000 in fiscal 2003

October 17, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Local governments have discovered that housing undocumented immigrants in their jails is a lucrative way of earning millions in extra revenue. In Maryland, county detention centers have taken in hundreds of detainees annually, realizing that the cost of housing, feeding and clothing them is no different than for local inmates.

With the exception of allowing the detainees more time in the law library and with visitors, the jails are providing the same services to all of the inmates.

The Carroll County Detention Center has received $3.37 million since it started housing immigration detainees in February 2000. Of that total, $2.5 million has gone to the county's general fund, said detention center Warden George Hardinger.

"It certainly hasn't been a problem," Hardinger said. "Our job is housing inmates, whether it's from the state, local or INS. To me, an inmate is an inmate."

Nationwide, about 22,000 detainees are being held for deportation proceedings, up from about 6,000 12 years ago. About 60 percent are housed in more than 200 local jails, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore.

Because of the large increase in the number of detainees, the federal government began contracting with local jails several years ago to house them, officials said. The local jurisdictions are reimbursed per detainee per day. Expenses outside of the routine are billed directly to the federal government.

The number of detainees at local jails fluctuates daily, depending on available space, detention officials said. Some detainees are held only a few days, while others are incarcerated for months and some for more than a year.

In Carroll County, Deputy Joe Hernandez is the jail's official liaison to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Hernandez, a retired New Mexico police officer fluent in 18 Spanish dialects, keeps tabs on the detainees at the Carroll jail.

From the moment the detainees arrive at central booking until they depart, they depend on Hernandez for everything from toothpaste to religious accessories. Detainees sometimes ask for special prayer items such as mats or caps, which the jail will provide. But food requests for religious or other reasons are handled through the jail's system of providing regular, vegetarian and special medically prescribed meals.

Carroll, like other detention centers, is obligated to show an orientation video to detainees, explaining their rights and options in the immigration legal process.

"Courtesies, like letting them use my personal office to make telephone calls, builds good will," said Hernandez, who acted as an interpreter for the INS when he was a police officer.

Detainees come from all over the world, and in special cases Hernandez will call the immigration bureau to request an interpreter. He also provides a list of immigration organizations to the detainees, who have to pay for their legal counsel.

"Their main concern is to leave the country or fight to stay," Hernandez said.

Lt. Timothy K. Cameron, commander of the corrections division at St. Mary's County Detention Center, said detainees are particularly adamant about the extra time they are entitled to in the law library - five hours a week instead of the three accorded regular inmates.

The detainees also have more recreational time and are entitled to 30 minutes of visiting time weekly compared with the 15 given to regular inmates.

He said immigration officials reimburse the county $67.32 a day per detainee. The cost to care for an inmate is $53, he said.

Since St. Mary's began accepting detainees in September 2001, it has received $1.6 million from the federal government.

"It is a benefit to the county, especially with the revenue," Cameron said. "What a lot of people don't see is that we're staffing these facilities anyway. It's business as usual, with a few minor details."

Like other detention centers, St. Mary's houses its 18 detainees - all men - separately from the general inmate population. The most detainees the county has ever housed at one time is 50 in the 262-capacity jail, Cameron said.

In October 2001, Carroll billed INS $133,000 for housing 72 detainees. The maximum capacity at the Carroll jail is 287 inmates. As of Friday, there were 276 inmates at the jail, 17 of them immigration detainees.

Hardinger said immigration officials pay the county $63.36 per detainee. Inmates at the jail cost the county about $46 a day, he said.

In Howard County, which has a capacity of 341 prisoners, an average of 30 immigration detainees are housed at any given time, said Melanie C. Pereira, the county's director of corrections. Some days, she said, they will have as few as 20 and other days as many as 40.

With its proximity to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the Howard County Detention Center is often the last stop for detainees before being deported.

Pereira said that she employs several guards who speak a range of languages.

Howard's contract with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls for the jail to be reimbursed $70 per detainee. For fiscal year 2003, she said the bureau paid the county nearly $700,000.

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