Paying up

May 08, 2006

From New Mexico to New York, states overburdened with growing populations of undocumented immigrants are pressing Congress to force the federal government to reimburse them for local expenses related to illegal immigration. State officials want congressional lawmakers to include this requirement in immigration legislation currently being considered.

The states' position underscores the need for lawmakers, who are deeply divided on immigration reform, to come to some agreement at a time when jurisdictions around the country are increasingly feeling abandoned by the federal government. Several states have taken matters into their own hands and adopted highly punitive laws that end up pushing illegal immigrants further underground, undermining cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement and demonizing all immigrants, whether legal or undocumented.

The federal government is increasingly pushing local law enforcement to seek out and arrest illegal immigrants, but it's mostly states and counties that end up footing the bill. Local jurisdictions are also forced to cover the cost of treating illegal immigrants when they get sick, of educating their children in overcrowded schools, and of providing them with other public services.

The stakes are highest in states bordering Mexico, but jurisdictions as far away as Suffolk County, N.Y., and Herndon, Va., are grappling with social and economic challenges related to illegal immigration. Suffolk County administrators say they spend $10 million a year apprehending undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes; California spends $750 million annually.

In March, when the Senate Judiciary Committee was crafting a compromise immigration bill, the 18-member Western Governors' Association urged lawmakers to mandate federal reimbursements to states for the costs of detaining illegal immigrants. A study of counties along the Mexican border cited by the association found that border communities spend more than $89 million annually on law enforcement related to human smuggling and drug trafficking.

The states are right. What's needed is a uniform and comprehensive immigration law that takes a national approach to the problem and doesn't leave states holding the bag.

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