With California slipping into a financial sinkhole, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to save more than $180 million by cutting short the sentences of thousands of immigrants in the state's prisons and turning them over to federal authorities for deportation.
The idea faces certain hurdles — for one thing, commuting some sentences will require court approval — and immigration authorities warn that a mass release of inmates from California and other states could swamp the federal system, which is already at capacity.
But Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Lisa Page said: "Every dollar not spent to house an undocumented immigrant inmate is a dollar that can be spent on health care services and education and other important programs to Californians. These inmates are the federal government's responsibility and California taxpayers shouldn't be paying the bill."
In recent years, other states have struck agreements with federal authorities to deport some inmates before their sentences were up, but those releases were done on a much smaller scale than what California is proposing.
The state's plan would involve as many as 19,000 inmates. Those among them who committed sex offenses or violent crimes would not be eligible for early release, Page said Friday.
Most in U.S. illegally
Nearly 65,000 immigrants — most of them in the U.S. illegally — are serving time in the U.S. for state crimes.
Once immigrants have done their time in state prison, the federal government takes custody of most of them and begins deportation proceedings against them, either because they are illegal immigrants or because they committed crimes while in the U.S. legally.
The government reimburses states for some of the expenses involved in imprisoning immigrants, but states say the money is not nearly enough to cover their costs.
Schwarzenegger is proposing to commute the sentences of thousands of immigrants and transfer them to federal custody over the next 12 months to help close a state budget gap projected at more than $24 billion.
The savings would be a pittance for California — just $182 million if all 19,000 inmates now being held for immigration authorities were released — but Schwarzenegger is looking to save every dime he can. He already has proposed eliminating health care for poor children.
Fed detention centers are full
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the 33,000 federal detention cells across the country already are full, and immigration judges could be overloaded if the number of deportation cases balloons.
California Corrections spokesman Seth Unger said that to avoid overwhelming the federal system, the state would keep its inmates behind bars until their deportation hearings were over and their appeals exhausted. In that way, they could be deported almost immediately after being turned over to federal authorities.
Since more than 70 percent of California's immigrant inmates are from Mexico, deporting them would typically involve putting them on a bus.
Officials in other states, including Oregon and Washington, are considering similar moves.
"The fiscal realities that Florida and California and other states are facing will probably put great pressure on trying to reduce the prison population," said Michael Ramage, general counsel for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "Why should the state be saddled with the expense of having to provide a place for these people to be incarcerated while they wait to be deported?"
Most of these released inmates are unlikely to serve additional time once they are home. That is one reason governors of some states are not about to follow Schwarzenegger's example.
"That's just not happening here in Texas," said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
Officials with the Mexican consulate in Sacramento expressed concern that thousands of ex-convicts could be deported to Mexico.
"In the event that this happens, we will make sure that it takes place in an orderly and safe manner, and that the rights of all deportees, regardless of their migratory status, are observed and respected unconditionally," Consul General Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez said.
3,200 commutations doable now
Schwarzenegger can single-handedly commute the sentences of 3,200 of them who were convicted of nonviolent, non-sexual offenses. Releasing more serious and repeat offenders early requires approval from the state Supreme Court.
For weeks, the Schwarzenegger administration left open the possibility that violent and sex offenders could be released too. But on Friday, in response to inquiries from The Associated Press, Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman said the governor has ruled that out.
Schwarzenegger's proposal was prompted in part by President Barack Obama's May budget proposal to end the $400 million program that pays states and counties for holding illegal immigrants behind bars — a program that California officials say reimburses only about 12 percent of the state's costs.
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the Obama administration wants to divert the money to border security and immigration enforcement.