Texas jails spent more than $156.6 million holding undocumented immigrants for federal authorities for the past two years, the Texas Tribune reported Tuesday. The exorbitant amount went to housing more than 131,000 immigrants without legal status who are kept in county jails while awaiting deportation proceedings.
Republican legislation passed in 2011 requires counties to report each month how many undocumented immigrants they are holding and at what cost. The goal was to show the burden the federal immigration system places on local communities and pressure immigration officials to take on the cost.
Through the federal program Secure Communities, county jails are frequently asked to hold people with minor criminal histories for federal immigration proceedings, legally for a maximum of 48 hours. Texas eagerly embraced the program in 2008 and expanded its reach even as other states opted out due to racial profiling concerns.
In California, another immigrant-heavy state, the cost of jailing an individual on immigration charges for two days is about $114 per person, which adds up quickly to an estimated $65 million a year. Often, law enforcement keep immigrants locked up for much longer than the maximum 48 hours, further escalating costs. In Los Angeles County, where immigrants were reportedly detained for several weeks longer than the legal limit, taxpayers spent over $26 million per year on these holds.
Collaborating with federal immigration authorities has non-financial costs for local law enforcement as well, as immigrant communities become much more reluctant to report crimes or cooperate with ongoing criminal investigations.
Santa Clara County refused to honor immigration holds unless the federal government footed the bill for bed space and staff time in these jails. This funding never came, but California recently addressed the problem by banning local law enforcement throughout the state from detaining immigrants without serious criminal records on behalf of federal authorities.
Though Secure Communities is intended to catch dangerous immigrants with violent criminal records, nearly 40 percent of “criminal” deportees picked up in local jails were charged with the lowest level crimes like traffic violations. Traffic offenses and small amounts of marijuana possession are more likely to get an undocumented immigrant detained than violent crimes.