Proposed Immigration Reform and Costs to States
Comprehensive immigration reform, which seemed a remote possibility only months ago, now seems more likely than at any time in the past 10 years.
A so-called “gang of eight” bipartisan group of U.S. senators has been mulling immigration reform legislation carefully while working with a coalition of labor and business leaders to ensure broad agreement on major planks of reform. While both parties appear to be close to a deal on major aspects of reform—such as expansion of work visas and a pathway to citizenship—it is unclear if the proposal that could be unveiled as early as next week will address the current crisis in unreimbursed state detention costs for aliens who commit crimes on U.S. soil, as well as other potential state costs resulting from new legislation.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program “provides federal payments to states and localities that incurred correctional officer salary costs for incarcerating undocumented criminal aliens with at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for violations of state or local law, and incarcerated for at least 4 consecutive days during the reporting period.” In other words, because states incur much of the cost of arresting, detaining and processing foreign citizens, the assistance program is how the federal government reimburses states for carrying the burden.
The problem is that the federal government does not pay the full tab. States have faced a 27 percent cut in federal reimbursement since 2010, according to the National Criminal Justice Association. In fact, the president proposed eliminating the program entirely in 2010, which angered lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who in turn continued to fund the program. Even with the restored funding, however, the federal government reimbursed only 18 percent of the costs of incarcerating criminal immigrants in the 2012 fiscal year.
Reimbursement for states is likely to get worse before it gets better. This year, the president has proposed cutting the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program to $70 million, while the House budget cuts the program to $155 million and the Senate budget increases funding to $255 million.
The Council of State Governments is working with the Big Seven coalition of major state and local associations to ensure that any immigration measure considered by Congress addresses state costs. The assistance program is the most readily identifiable cost, but proposals for English language training for citizen applicants and other proposed requirements could place additional unfunded or underfunded burdens on states. These increased costs could be addressed through direct federal funding or, more likely, through fees charged to applicants.
There remain significant differences of opinion among state leaders over the subject of immigration reform. There is clear agreement, however, that the federal government should live up to its commitments in covering the costs of the immigration laws it passes.