Union Tribune

March 26, 2003

Higher reimbursements sought for jailing of criminal aliens


WASHINGTON The Senate has given California a boost, at least symbolically, by calling for increased federal funding to reimburse states for the cost of jailing criminal immigrants.

Lawmakers signaled their intention to double the amount the government spent in the current fiscal year for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which President Bush wants to eliminate.

California usually has received the bulk of the funding under the program because the state incarcerates the most illegal immigrants in the nation. The state stands to lose $200 million if the Bush plan is enacted.

Prompted by senators from Southwest border states, the Senate this month recommended continuing the 7-year-old program. Lawmakers also said they want to spend $500 million during the current fiscal year and $750 million in fiscal year 2004, which begins Oct. 1.

The Bush administration has resisted spending any more for the program, and many predict a battle on Capitol Hill. Despite the Senate's recommendation, many hurdles remain because the money has not been appropriated by Congress.

The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program "has been seriously underfunded over the past few years," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "This has forced states and local government to pay for the costs of incarcerating criminal aliens, a federal responsibility."

When he was governor of Texas, Bush lobbied the federal government for more reimbursement funds. When he became president, his position changed.

Last year, Bush first proposed eliminating the program, but Congress kept it running. California lost about $100 million in a reduced spending plan, officials said.

Justice Department officials said the administration wants to eliminate the program, in part because states don't always use the money to fund prison programs.