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Imperial County spent $5.4 million in 1999 to provide services to illegal immigrants

February 03, 2001|By ERIKA BUCK, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Border communities, including Imperial County, spend more than $100 million a year on legal and healthcare costs related to the flow of illegal immigrants, according to a report scheduled for release Saturday.

Imperial County spent $5.4 million, or 4.5 percent of its general budget, in 1999 to provide services to illegal immigrants for law enforcement, criminal justice and emergency medical care. The study, commissioned by the Justice Department, was expected to aid in the counties' continuing battle to get federal funds to deal with these problems. Members of the United States/Mexico Border Counties Coalition are scheduled to meet in El Paso, Texas, this weekend to discuss the study.

‘‘International migration is, by the Constitution, a federal responsibility,'' said San Diego State University professor John Weeks, who contributed to the study. ‘‘Local governments are not able to defend their international borders. So, to the extent that the federal government is allowing criminal illegal immigrants into the country, the local expectation is that they will help out.''

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The Sheriff's Office in Imperial County foots the largest part of the bill. The county jails about 300 illegal immigrants a year on drug-trafficking charges, in addition to those charged with more common crimes such as auto theft. The average drug sentence is six months and costs the department $1,000, according to Sheriff Harold Carter.

But jail costs are only part of the equation. The justice system, including the District Attorney's Office, the public defender, the Superior Court, the adult probation and juvenile services departments share the bill for criminal illegal immigrants.

The study also surveyed medical and coroner's costs. About 100 illegal immigrants die each year in the deserts around Imperial County or drown in the All-American Canal, and the county spends a minimum of $2,000 to deal with each case, said Carter. Counties often pay emergency medical costs for illegal immigrants, the study found. Imperial County spent $1.3 million in 1999, partly to treat people who had become dehydrated or hurt while trying to cross the border illegally.

A federal program launched in 1994 partially reimburses counties across the country for the costs of jailing undocumented immigrants, but the funds fall far short of the actual costs. The border counties received only 28 cents on the dollar for what they spent, according to the study. Imperial County requested $1 million in federal funds last year, but only got $266,000, said Carter.

‘‘They never have enough money in the … program to make anybody whole,'' he said. ‘‘Everybody's strapped. We're doing everything we can and I don't think we can do much more without help.''

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., has introduced legislation to provide $1.6 billion of federal funding over the next four years to keep the program running. Half of the money would go toward law enforcement and justice proceedings. The other half would fund emergency medical treatment for illegal immigrants.

Carter said he is eager to get additional funds but skeptical they would be a cure-all. He would like to see Congress adopt a comprehensive plan to deal with problems facing border communities.

‘‘Of course, we appreciate any funding we can get at this point,'' he said. ‘‘I would encourage legislative people to come out here and look at the Southwest border. Then maybe we could get more sympathy for the problems we deal with.''

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