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Panel Rejects Bid to Make U.S. Pay Prison Costs of Illegal Immigrants


Washington — A California lawmaker failed in an attempt to ease the financial burden of state by making the federal government pay for imprisoning illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) advocated a proposal to require the federal government to either imprison illegal immigrants convicted of felonies or reimburse states for the costs of jailing them. But the bill failed on a procedural point in a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Berman, however, did win approval of a provision that would require the attorney general to consider the number of illegals in state prisons when making grants to states to help keep violent, repeat offenders behind bars.

"This is a modest first step, but we're going to make bigger steps before this process is finished," Berman said afterward. He said that he would seek support from the Clinton Administration for additional federal payments to offset state costs for dealing with illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

California alone now pays $375 million a year to imprison 18,112 illegal immigrants, Berman told members of the House Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property and judicial administration. "It's an enormous drain," he said.

Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) strongly endorsed Berman's plan, arguing that the federal government "is not picking up its share of the load."

Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) regarded as a leading Republican spokesman on law enforcement issues, also backed Berman's original proposal to make the federal government responsible for imprisonment of alien felons.

But the provision was killed on a point of order raised by Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.) who objected that Berman's amendment was not germane to the bill's main purpose: helping states pay for the cost of long-term incarceration of violent criminals with multiple convictions.

Even so, Hughes agreed that states have been shortchanged by federal failure to control immigration. "I think it's disgraceful we haven't provided funds." Hughes said.

The subcommittee approved a bill to authorize $3 billion over the next five years for federal grants to states to help pay for life imprisonment for violent felons convicted for the third time under "three strikes laws" recently approved by California and other states.

Earlier, the subcommittee narrowly rejected, 8 to 7, a proposal by McCollum, to authorize $10 billion in federal grants to states on condition that all state prisoners serve at least 85% of their sentences.

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