The Sheriff's Office has been using the federal money to help pay for a $1.8 million security upgrade in the county jail. This type of federal money available to all states and counties to offset costs of jailing illegal immigrants for breaking local laws was cut by 3.5 percent since last year, while applications for the money increased 29 percent.
This may have resulted in Imperial's allowance decline, but San Diego County got $5.3 million in funding, up 7 percent from $4.9 million in 2001. And Orange County received $10.5 million this year, up 59 percent from $6.6 million last year.
Sheila Jerusalem, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said funding for the program is based on a mathematical equation that accounts for inmate numbers and correctional salaries of officers. This process ‘‘is going to be the most fair because it's absent of favoritism,'' she said.
Imperial County Sheriff Harold Carter said ‘‘a place like Orange County has a large inmate population and pays higher salaries'' for correctional officers.
‘‘The problem of illegal immigration has spread all over the country,'' he said, and doesn't blame other counties for trying to get more money.
Other data suggests the equation itself may not be fair. The U.S.-Mexico Border Counties Coalition estimated in 1999, illegal immigrants cost the Imperial County Sheriff's Office $2.8 million. The department got back 12 percent of that cost from the federal government. Meanwhile, San Diego recovered 44 percent of its costs.
‘‘Larger counties fare better,'' said Pat Casey, senior analyst for the Imperial County executive office, suggesting those counties may have more political clout.
The program that reimburses counties for housing undocumented prisoners may be wiped out completely by next year. President Bush eliminated the program's money in his 2003 budget in a shift of priorities to improve border security.
‘‘This program is just scratching the surface'' of the county's illegal immigrant problem, Carter said, ‘‘but we don't want to see it eliminated.''
Still, the California Republican delegation has asked President Bush to increase the program's funding next year to $750 million nationwide, an increase from $546 million this year.
This is ‘‘a program we've supported,'' said Mike Harrison, press secretary for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine. ‘‘A lot of illegal immigrants that come to Imperial County go north'' because they're afraid of the Border Patrol in Imperial County, he said. ‘‘But that's not to say Imperial County doesn't have problems.''