The proposal to house illegal immigrants in regional prisons until they can be deported may be more practical than holding them in county jails. But we worry that this might be a slippery slope toward shifting the burden of dealing with illegal immigrants to state and local law enforcement agencies.
As of last October, York County became the only county in South Carolina to be part of the federal 287(g) program. Under that program, specially trained deputies with the county Sheriff's Office can tap into technology from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department, or ICE, to determine an inmate's immigration status.
The county does not go out into the community searching for illegals. Inmates' status is checked only after they are arrested for another reason. Then, if they are found to be in this country illegally, they are held until they can be shipped to the nearest ICE facility in Atlanta for deportation.
An average of 25 illegal immigrants are deported from the York County detention center each month. Since October, according to Sheriff Bruce Bryant, 192 have been deported.
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But the S.C. Sheriff's Association recently proposed a new system. Sheriffs, including Bryant, have entered discussions with the governor's office and federal immigration officials about building three regional prisons to hold all of the state's illegal immigrants as they await deportation.
Each 400-bed prison would be located in one of three broad regions serving several counties. Sheriffs say this would free up space in already crowded county jails.
But at this point in the discussions, it has not been determined who would pay for the prisons, which are estimated to cost $12 million to $15 million apiece. And the early expectation is that they would be manned and operated by the state.
Sheriffs and other state officials speculate that this might be a good way to attract federal dollars to help pay for housing illegal immigrants. York County, as a participant in the 287(g) program, gets daily stipends from the Department of Homeland Security for each immigrant it has in custody, but is the only county in the state to be reimbursed.
The 287(g) program appears to be an effective way to move undesirables out of the county. Because these immigrants already are in custody, they are likely to have broken other laws. In fact, it is likely that many law-abiding members of the local immigrant community are happy to see them deported.
But the federal government has the primary responsibility for dealing with illegal immigration issues. And the federal government should bear most, if not all, of the cost of processing, housing and deporting illegal immigrants.
With current budget pressures, we doubt the state Legislature would approve $45 million to build the three regional prisons to hold illegal immigrants. Nor should the state have the responsibility for running those prisons.
The next step might be to use sheriff's deputies as de facto immigration agents, sending them into the community to search for and round up illegal immigrants. Most counties do not have the resources or personnel to take on such a task.
Regional prisons could be a more economic and practical way to hold illegal immigrants for deportation -- if the federal government is willing to foot all or most of the expense. We hope state and local officials have that spelled out before agreeing to such a program.
Regional prisons for illegal immigrants might alleviate local overcrowding, but who pays?
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