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.
At an average cost of $18,330 per inmate per year, incarcerating noncitizens costs US taxpayers nearly $1 billion every year. Officials here in Texas estimate the state could save more than $10 million per year by deporting nonviolent criminal aliens.
Texas will likely mimic Florida's program, which allows the governor to give a nonviolent criminal alien clemency if he agrees to immediate deportation. If the alien re-enters the US and is apprehended, he will serve his original sentence in state prison and be prosecuted under federal law, which could mean an additional 20 years behind bars.
While the program in Florida increases the number of prison beds available, it may also save federal tax dollars.
Under the crime bill passed by Congress earlier this year, the federal government must reimburse states that house alien inmates. Over the next five years, the Justice Department will pay states $1.8 billion to defray the cost of incarcerating foreign-born criminals.
Observers point out that the INS quickly agreed to help deport aliens in Florida because it will reduce the amount of money the federal government has to give the state. Thus far, most of the criminals deported from Florida were incarcerated on drug charges. Most were from Colombia.
Immigration-rights advocates fear Florida's deportation programs will reduce inmates' ability to get their day in court. Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project in Boston, believes the effort is ``part of the anti-immigrant backlash.''
``What often gets overlooked, is that there are a lot of people who are citizens and don't realize it,'' he says. ``In the rush to remove people, there may be people who sign away their rights.''