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Texas, Seeking Budget Cut, To Deport Foreign Inmates

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A GROWING number of states, eager to trim incarceration costs and open up more prison beds, are looking at clearing their cells of criminal illegal immigrants.

Since June, Florida, in coordination with the federal government, has deported nearly 200 of these nonviolent foreign-born inmates. Estimated savings to the state: $5 million.

Now Texas is considering adopting a similar program, and several other immigrant-heavy states - including California and New York - are closely watching the controversial Florida experiment.

``The question is simple,'' says Mark Schlakman, an aide to Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida, a state that spends $85 million per year to incarcerate foreign-born inmates. ``Who do you want in the cell? A non-violent criminal alien, or a dangerous violent offender?''

Texas officials are currently discussing a deportation program with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). They hope to have it ready for state legislators when they return to Austin next month.

Behind the move: A hardening public attitude toward illegal immigration and crime, as well as exploding prison populations that are draining state budgets.

Though the exact number of illegal immigrants behind bars in the US isn't know, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 3.2 percent of all US inmates are not citizens. Thus, of the more than 1.3 million inmates now in local, state, and federal lockups, more than 40,000 are foreign-born.

However, recent assessments by corrections officials in California, Florida, and Texas indicate that those three states alone hold more than 30,000 alien inmates, which puts the total number in the US at well over 50,000.

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