Thu., May 26, 2011 6:27am (EDT)

Who Will Pay for New Immigration Law?
By Jeanne Bonner
Updated: 3 years ago

ATLANTA  —  
Opponents of the immigration law, known as House Bill 87, say it will cost too much for cities and counties to carry out. In particular, they say communities could be stuck with low-level illegal alien defendants who are not a priority for federal immigration officials.
Opponents of the immigration law, known as House Bill 87, say it will cost too much for cities and counties to carry out. In particular, they say communities could be stuck with low-level illegal alien defendants who are not a priority for federal immigration officials.
A federal program might not cover the full costs of Georgia's new immigration law. When Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill into law this month, he said a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program called 287 g could help pick up the tab.

Responding to a question from a reporter at the bill-signing ceremony, Deal said, “One of the areas that this bill addresses is something we have encouraged for some time and that is for local communities to be a part of the federal 287(g) program."

He continued, "There are some financial incentives for that and I would encourage the Department of Homeland Security to approve those applications for some of our counties who want to participate in that program but have not received approval at this point.”

The program is a partnership between the federal government and local police departments. Homeland Security trains officers to enforce immigration laws.

A handful of communities in Georgia already participate in the program.

Brittany Nystrom is an immigration lawyer. She’s studied the 287(g) program and she says local communities will foot most of the cost of enforcing the law.

“The police department that employs these officers is responsible for paying their salaries, for keeping them employed, and the federal government is only responsible for training them on the immigration laws that they need to understand,” she said by phone from Washington, D.C.

Nystrom also said cities and counties could also bear the cost of incarcerating lower-level defendants who are illegal immigrants.

That's because Homeland Security officials have said the program should target high-level criminals who are here illegally, not people who commit misdemeanors. A report issued last year by the department's inspector general said Immigrations and Customs Enforcement should make a priority through the 287(g) program of only arresting and detaining "aliens who pose a threat to public safety or are a danger to the community."

“If the state of Georgia is apprehending a number of people who fall outside of those priorities," Nystrom said, "there is a likelihood the Department of Homeland Security will say, ‘Thank you, but we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the detention space to come and get these people. You are stuck with them.’”

Governor Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson says the new law will incur costs, but it will cost the state less than illegal immigration.

“287(g) is a tool," he said. "It won’t pay for all of the immigration law. But there is no cost in the immigration law to the state that comes anywhere near what it costs for us to pay for illegal immigration.”

He also says the problem of illegal immigration is less acute in some areas of the state, so all counties probably won’t need to apply to the program. Gwinnett, Dalton and Hall Counties, for example, have high numbers of illegal immigrants and they are already enrolled in 287(g).

As for the costs of incarceration, Robinson said the heart of the bill, known as House Bill 87, is e-verify. That will require companies with 11 or more employees to use a federal employment verification system, called e-verify, to check the immigration status of prospective workers. He said Georgia will not be using the law as an excuse to round up people based on the color of their skin or their perceived ethnicities.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security could not immediately comment on the issue.

The full cost of the immigration law is not known. The state's fiscal economist, Kenneth Heaghney, said he has not prepared estimates of how much the law will cost the state. Other prominent economists in the state also said they have not worked up estimates.