Under President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2017, the Justice Department would abandon a program that reimburses state and local prisons for housing illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.
The move to eliminate the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) — which would save the Justice Department $210 million — is likely to face significant resistance in Congress and from local officials concerned about a loss of funding.
The White House has moved in the past to trim or cancel the program, and each year, it has survived, said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which generally supports reduced immigration.
“You could say if you don’t start offsetting the costs, some of these local jails might start releasing more people,” Vaughan said. “I don’t understand why they bother with this fight every year.”
Republicans in Congress have said they broadly oppose the president’s budget, and the program is just a blip in the Justice Department’s $29 billion budget, including spending on national security and cybersecurity and countering violent extremism — the top priorities on a long list.
In budget materials disclosing its proposed termination, the Justice Department asserted that “robust funding for immigration matters elsewhere in the budget renders this redundant.” The budget request for the Department of Homeland Security includes enhanced efforts on deportation — including $347.5 million in funding for a program to apprehend and deport illegal immigrants.
SCAAP gives federal money to states and localities that house illegal immigrants with at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for at least four consecutive days. The program doles out millions of dollars to jurisdictions nationwide, particularly to those with high numbers of immigrants. In fiscal 2015, California received more than $44.1 million, Florida received more than $6.7 million, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice received more than $8.2 million, according to materials on the Office of Justice Programs’ Web site.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, said it was “disappointing, but not surprising,” that the White House had proposed slashing the funding. He said that the state had more than 16,000 inmates with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention orders and that for the coming fiscal year, he anticipated $44.2 million in federal reimbursement.
If the federal money did not come through, Palmer said, California would have to turn to its legislature for money.
“It’s certainly significant, and we’re certainly not the only state that’s affected by this,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is running for president, Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) and others have proposed withholding federal funding to force “sanctuary cities,” which don’t work with federal authorities to enforce immigration laws, to become more cooperative. Culberson referenced the fiscal 2017 budget proposal in a letter to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch on the topic earlier this year.
“The bottom line is very simple, State or local law enforcement agencies are expected to work cooperatively with Federal law enforcement agencies,” Culberson wrote. “Communities that do not work with Federal law enforcement officials, in violation of Federal law, should not expect to receive Federal grant funding from the Department of Justice.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the program was first authorized by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, although it was not funded until years later. The group said that funding never covers the full costs that state and local jurisdictions bear but that it is still a worthwhile program.
“NCSL has advocated for better or even full funding for SCAAP over the years and would continue to do so should the need arise,” said Susan Parnas Frederick, the conference’s senior federal affairs counsel.