Ariz. gov: Release many criminal immigrants to ICE

AP News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2009 4:45 PM

Gov. Jan Brewer says Arizona could cut its budget deficit by millions of dollars by taking nonviolent illegal immigrants out of state prisons and turning them over to federal authorities for deportation to their homelands.

This approach to cost-cutting has been used in Arizona, the busiest illegal gateway into the United States for illegal immigrants, since 2005.

Brewer, who ordered the state's prison director to turn over as many nonviolent criminal immigrants as possible to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation, said the federal government has failed to fully reimburse Arizona for the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of state crimes.

"The federal government refuses to secure our borders and allows criminal aliens to enter our state, and then Arizona taxpayers pay for the prosecution of these criminal aliens. And then the federal government sticks us with the bill for their incarceration," Brewer said. "We cannot afford to be their host."

The Republican governor discussed the handovers and other cost-cutting measures at a cabinet meeting Monday that was focused on confronting the state's budget crisis. Brewer said Arizona is facing some of the worst financial days in its 97-year history, with prospects for the coming year looking bleak.

Even after the Legislature approved a budget bill over the weekend, Arizona still faces a $1.5 billion deficit this year and a projected $3.4 billion shortfall next year.

The bill contained $193 million in funding cuts and other changes that set the stage for agencies to reduce services and cut state employee pay. It included a midyear 7.5 percent cut for most agencies and sweeps dollars from more than 100 special purpose funds to prop up regular budget spending.

The bill, which Brewer said she intends to sign in the coming days, said state agencies may cut employee compensation by up to 5 percent.

Brewer instructed a state official Monday to begin the rule-making process necessary for carrying out such a pay cut. But Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman later said the process was started as a contingency.

The governor said the release of criminal immigrants from state prisons will reduce the state's costs and that she would work with state lawmakers to come up with tougher penalties for such offenders who sneak back into the country after their release from prison.

Under state law, the state may release a criminal immigrant to federal authorities if it gets a deportation order and the inmate has served at least half of his or her sentence, typically for crimes like drunken driving and lower-level drug offenses. Prisoners convicted of murder or sex offenses aren't eligible for release.

The number who could be released was unavailable early Monday afternoon.

Barrett Marson, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said state law allows for such releases 90 days before the end of a prison sentence. Marson said state prison officials were working to transfer several hundred criminal immigrants to federal authorities.

"The state Department of Corrections has been conferring with ICE about this possibility, so we will be prepared," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Republican Sen. Russell Pearce of Mesa, the Legislature's staunchest advocate for tougher immigration enforcement, said he will help pursue legislation to impose tougher sentences on criminal immigrants who sneak back into the United States.

"If they return to the state of Arizona, they are going to have white hair when they get out of that prison," Pearce said.