Austin, Texas (Texas Tribune) — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in a pitched re-election battle with three GOP primary opponents, on Tuesday sent a letter to President Obama expressing his disappointment in the federal government's inability to secure the border and requesting millions to repay county jails for housing undocumented immigrants.
"Nearly 90% of Texas counties are affected by this unnecessary burden," he wrote. "This largely unfunded mandate cannot continue unchecked."
Dewhurst said the money spent jailing undocumented immigrants who have been charged with crimes could be better spent on increased law enforcement efforts, adding that he looked forward to a response in the form of "prompt payment."
Texas county jails spent more than $156.6 million housing more than 131,000 undocumented immigrants with federal detainers between October 2011 and September 2013, according to state jail commission data.
“Those are staggering numbers,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who authored the 2011 bill that required jails to begin tracking data about the cost of jailing undocumented immigrants.
Under Williams’ legislation, Senate Bill 1698, the counties must report to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards each month how many undocumented immigrants with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers are in their facilities. ICE files detainers on undocumented immigrants who are subject to deportation when their sentences are completed. The law also requires jail officials to estimate the costs of housing those immigrants who face deportation. The goal was to establish the cost of jailing undocumented immigrants and to pressure the federal government to reimburse local communities, just as the feds already pay state prisons.
“The federal government has got to get a grip on controlling our borders,” Williams said in an emailed statement.
Of the 245 jails statewide, Harris County reported by far the largest number of undocumented immigrants and the highest cost. The jail, one of the largest in the nation, housed more than 30,000 undocumented immigrants at a cost of more than $49.6 million.
Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the Harris County sheriff’s office, said calculating the cost is not as straightforward as it might seem. The federal government, he said, already pays a portion of the cost to house certain felony offenders who are undocumented immigrants. And, he pointed out, the inmates would be in jail even if there weren’t a detainer from ICE, because they were charged with crimes.
“Immigration is a federal issue, and if the federal government fails to take care of that piece of business, then it’s financially on the hook for it.” he said.
Dallas County spent more than $22 million housing more than 12,000 undocumented immigrants, and Travis County spent more than $15 million on 11,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the reports. Among the 20 counties that reported the highest costs, 17 reported spending $1 million or more.
Chuck DeVore, vice president for policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former California assemblyman, said the issue of reimbursement for incarcerating undocumented immigrants is thorny. Congress already pays a portion of the cost for housing undocumented immigrants in state lockups.
But he said it is useful to gather the data about the burden local governments are now shouldering.
“It will likely put additional pressure on federal representatives to increase reimbursement of the costs to the state of Texas, so that’s a good thing,” DeVore said.