updated 12/31/2008 8:50:28 AM ET 2008-12-31T13:50:28

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire wants illegal immigrants serving time in state jails deported, a move intended to save the state more than $9 million in the next two-year budget.

The deportation proposal is modeled after a program in Arizona that has saved the state more than $18.5 million since 2005, said Eldon Vail, Secretary of the state Department of Corrections.

"It's not an ideal choice, if revenue was there, I'd say have them do their time," Vail said. "Is justice better served? It's a tough question to wrestle with when you don't have resources."

The state faces a $5.7 billion budget deficit over the next 2 1/2 years, and Gregoire has proposed a no new-taxes budget proposal laden with cuts, including about $200 million from the Department of Corrections, the Attorney General's office, and other public safety programs.

The deportation proposal would call for the state to come to an agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which would carry out the deportations. Those eligible for deportation include aliens serving time in state jails for drug or property crime convictions.

In Washington state, there are about 350 prisoners who would be eligible to be transferred to federal authorities. On average, it costs the state $90 a day to imprison an inmate, Vail said.

Gregoire's proposal represents a policy shift toward illegal immigrants from a state that had largely stayed away from immigration enforcement. Washington state, with its large agricultural industry, attracts a large number of undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico.

'Vulnerable group'
State Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, who chairs the Ways and Means committee, said she will oppose the measure. The veteran lawmaker is also worried other programs that provide humanitarian aid to illegal immigrant women and their children may be proposed to be cut.

"Immigrants are a vulnerable group politically, that face the brunt of difficult budget situations," Baron said. "I understand this is to preserve state resources, but we're often talking about people's lives."

Washington would join Arizona and New York in having similar programs. Between 1995 and 2007, New York has saved an estimated $141 million by releasing more than 1,950 illegal immigrant inmates to federal hands, according to the New York State Department of Correctional Services.

"We've looked at a lot of ideas we wouldn't normally pursue. This is one where it's been done successfully," Vail said.

Currently in Washington, immigration agents can comb local jails for illegal aliens. Once federal agents identify an illegal alien in jail, a hold is placed on the person, and the federal government waits for the local sentence to be served before deportation procedures begin.

In Arizona, a joint agreement between ICE and the state to increase the deportation of illegal immigrants is considered a success by officials.

"The benefit to the state of Arizona is obviously — bed space," said Vincent Picard, ICE spokesman in Phoenix. "It's an opportunity for us to share resources and operate more efficiently."

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