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Panel OKs Bill on Illegal Immigrants in Prison

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An influential House committee, attempting to give more power to local communities to help them fight crime, approved legislation Friday to reimburse states like California for the millions of dollars that they spend to imprison illegal immigrants.

The legislation, supported by Reps. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) and Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), would provide reimbursement for state costs of jailing illegal immigrants--an expense that law enforcement officials warn is siphoning off badly needed crime-fighting dollars.

As the House Judiciary Committee debated the legislation, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was elsewhere in the Capital sparring with some of the nation’s mayors over Republican proposals to revisit the 1994 crime bill. Many of the mayors sharply questioned the new House leader about plans to roll back crime measures, which became law last year, that they regard as important to their cities.

If it becomes law, the legislation to reimburse states for prison costs would ease to some extent the mounting hostility in several states over illegal immigrants and over the federal government’s historic inability to control its borders.

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The legislation received near unanimous bipartisan approval in committee and is expected to win House passage easily, a sharp turn of events from last year when similar legislation never made it to the floor. Prospects in the Senate are less certain.

The issue has frustrated California law enforcement officials who see a greater share of state funds being spent to arrest, try and imprison illegal immigrants.

In California, 14% of the state inmates--11% in Los Angeles County--are illegal immigrants, according to congressional figures. By some estimates, Californians are paying about $400 million a year to imprison illegal immigrants on state criminal charges.

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The Moorhead and Berman legislation would force the entire nation to share in those costs.

“Illegal immigration is a national problem,” Moorhead said in an interview. “And we’d like to have the rest of the country share in the burden, instead of just a few along the border.”

The concept does not enjoy blanket support, however. Rep. Martin R. Hoke (R-Ohio), for example, said that each state should take care of its own judicial responsibilities. “This is a California problem, not Ohio’s,” Hoke said.

The bitter feelings between Gingrich and the mayors came at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting when many mayors expressed disappointment at Gingrich’s prediction that Congress would cut out some of elements of the 1994 crime legislation.

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That measure banned 19 assault-style weapons and provided $30 billion for such purposes as prison construction, crime-prevention programs and hiring of 100,000 new police officers across the nation. But Gingrich and other Republican leaders want to give local communities more say on how they can spend their share of the $30 billion.

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“Congress can debate crime all they want,” said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a strong supporter of the Clinton Administration crime bill that Republicans in Congress now want to rewrite. “The mayors and police chiefs deal with the problems every day.”

Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wis., accused Gingrich of violating an agreement he struck with mayors to gain their support for some GOP reforms in the crime bill last August. Soglin asked the Speaker what now is so unacceptable about the legislation “that we have to go back and revisit it?”

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“What I hear you saying is everything that happened prior to Labor Day doesn’t count,” Soglin said.

“I’m saying everything that happened prior to Nov. 8th doesn’t count,” Gingrich replied.

Gingrich told the mayors that Republican leaders want to explore ways to give local governments more flexibility--and reminded them that the GOP amendments to the crime bill led to the block grants that provided prevention money in the first place.

President Clinton appeared before the conference to plead for their support to help save the assault-weapons ban and funds for police.

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“It is very important that we not fix what ain’t broke and that we not become diverted by issues that can only divide us when there is so much we can do that will bring us together,” Clinton said.

Referring specifically to the firearms ban, Clinton said: “Let’s let this alone and go on about the business of the country. . . . I hope we can put an end to this war.”

Times staff writer John M. Broder contributed to this story.


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