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House OKs money for jailing illegal immigrants -- with caveat

May 10, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • A Republican-sponsored measure would deny federal money to "sanctuary cities" and any communities that fail to enforce immigration laws.
A Republican-sponsored measure would deny federal money to "sanctuary… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Incarcerating illegal immigrants is expensive, and local and state governments have for years insisted that the federal government help foot the bill. Congress appears poised once again to keep the money flowing.

The House on Thursday passed a bill to provide $165 million in the next fiscal year. But it also attached a Republican-sponsored measure to the bill that would deny the funds to "sanctuary cities" and any communities that fail to enforce immigration laws.

"If cities and states refuse to enforce the immigration laws that are on the books, they will no longer receive taxpayer funds to do so,’’ said the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.).

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who assailed the measure during debate, said in an interview that the threat was nothing more than campaign fodder. 

The amendment says "the obvious, which is, federal funds can't be used in violation of federal law," Schiff noted during the debate this week. In which case, he added, the amendment "accomplishes nothing, or the amendment seeks to go beyond existing law and set new policy, in which case the policy that it would set is one that is disadvantageous to states and local law enforcement.’’

Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, told the Los Angeles Times: "There is more cooperation today with local police and immigration enforcement than ever before. No city that I know of refuses to enforce immigration law.

"There are city leaders and law enforcement officials, however, who try to assure their citizens who are witnesses or victims of crimes that they won’t be turned over to immigration authorities,’’ she added. "That is not about providing sanctuary, but about providing smart policing to all residents.’’

Walsh’s amendment may not survive. The $51-billion bill funding the Justice and Commerce departments, NASA and some other agencies -- to which the amendment was attached -- faces a White House veto threat because of spending cuts and policy changes put into the measure.

But the illegal immigrants’ incarceration funding is expected to make it into a final bill.

The funding has long been a top federal priority for California, which receives the largest chunk of the money.

The Senate is expected to act soon on a bill that would provide $255 million. Any final amount would be determined by a House-Senate negotiators.

Congress provided $240 million this year to help local and state governments pay for incarcerating illegal immigrants. While local and state officials have expressed concern that the amount has been reduced over the years, they also have expressed relief that it hasn’t been eliminated.

The funding has drawn bipartisan support from California’s famously fractured congressional delegation and brought together often-rival California and Texas lawmakers.

Supporters of the funding contend that local and state taxpayers shouldn't have to bear even more of a burden for the federal government's failure to control the border.

Still, the money represents only a fraction of the nearly $1 billion that California, for example, spends a year incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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