Border states’ burden

GEORGE W. BUSH, throughout his presidency, has talked a consistently good game about the federal government’s responsibility to take a lead role in dealing with the unique challenges of immigration. But when budget time comes around, he’s all talk, and California is once again left holding the bill.

In what has become an annual ritual, Bush is seeking to place the entire burden of jailing criminal illegal immigrants on individual states. His new budget would eliminate the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which has provided meager federal assistance to states that house a disproportionate share of the non-federal population of illegal immigrant inmates.

The administration’s argument in favor of killing the program? That reimbursing the states for incarcerating illegal immigrants does not reduce the number of crimes they commit. White House analysts also warn that because illegal immigrants are hard to identify, there’s a chance that states actually could be getting more than their due. Heaven forbid.

California’s prison system spent $684 million last year to incarcerate and supervise the parole of about 19,000 illegal immigrants, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (That number doesn’t include county jails; L.A. County alone processed an estimated 40,000 illegal immigrants last year.) Congress, which funded the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program last year despite Bush’s lack of enthusiasm, kicked in $160 million to California. This year, with the state price tag rising to an estimated $865 million, Bush wants to back out.


In all probability, the program will be funded somewhere between the $0 proposed by the White House and the $900 million authorized by Congress last year. The program enjoys bipartisan support, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer say they are prepared to do battle.

Immigration, like free trade, is a boost for the economy and society in general but more challenging in the communities that bear the specific brunt.

California gladly accepts its role as the 21st century Ellis Island, but the Bush administration should be honest about the real costs of illegal immigration. The least the administration can do is provide economic relief to the few states that have to clean up after Washington’s mess.