NC Budget and Tax Center

Bill to require locals to enforce federal immigration law will cost taxpayers millions

Last night, the North Carolina Senate passed its version of House Bill 370, which would force North Carolina sheriffs to act as an extension of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Beyond the harmful costs to communities of increased fear, decreased willingness to engage with law enforcement, and family separation, there are costs to local governments of enforcing federal immigration laws. These costs come primarily in the form of holding individuals in jails while awaiting transfer to ICE custody, but also include the potential cost of litigation from unlawful detention.

Using methods from other states and informed by national researchers, our analysis of the costs to North Carolina of enforcing collaboration with ICE finds a conservative annual cost of $7 million to local governments across the state using updated data available from 2018 ICE detainers issued in our state. When a detainer is placed on an individual, the detainer extends the length of stay in jail for up to 48 hours. These costs are associated with the fact that many individuals are held when they otherwise would have been fined, ticketed, or released pending a trial date. Researchers estimate that the average stay in detention when ICE issues a detainer request is 22 days. North Carolina data from the federal government suggests that individuals with ICE detainers are often held much longer – an averaging of 69 days. The $7 million price tag is based on the more conservative 22-day estimate of detention when ICE issues a detainer.

This calculation is also based on last year’s number of people held on an ICE detainer in North Carolina, which remained below prior peak levels. If the requirement to enforce federal immigration law resulted in increased ICE detainers being issued, reaching similar levels to the 2011 peak, the costs could rise to $14.5 million annually.

The fiscal costs of this legislation could grow, with the potential additional court costs from the staffing required for hearings before officials of the court with those detained and the associated legal costs.

The potential is great for an increase in litigation costs for local jurisdictions. Lawsuits brought by detained individuals whose rights have been violated by these would-be obligatory, unconstitutional detentions have resulted in required payments by local governments to defendants and legal fees. A review of just a sample of recent cases shows that these costs can be significant.

  • In Roy v. County of Los Angeles, No. 12-cv-9012, 2018 WL 914773 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 7, 2018) a ruling in favor of a class of thousands of noncitizens held on detainers seeking damages against Los Angeles County, which had paid $255,000 to settle one named plaintiff’s detainer claim.
  • In Goodman v. Arpaio, 2:16-cv-04388 (D. Ariz. settled 2018), Maricopa County settled a detainer lawsuit for $30,750 in damages and $50,000 in attorney’s fees.
  • In Palacios-Valencia v. San Juan County, No. 14-cv-1050 (D.N.M. settled 2017), San Juan County paid $350,000 to settle detainer class action lawsuit, and paid named plaintiffs $25,000 and $15,000 to settle their claims.
  • In Gomez-Maciel v. Coleman, No. 17-cv-292 (E.D. Wash. settled 2017), the City of Spokane settled a detainer lawsuit for $49,000 while in Figueroa-Zarceno v. City and County of San Francisco, No. 17-cv-229 (N.D. Cal. settled 2017), San Francisco paid $190,000 settlement to a person unlawfully turned over to ICE.

These costs provide minimal return. Researchers have found that ICE enforcement is poorly targeted, resulting oftentimes in detention of those with traffic violations and misdemeanors — not serious crimes. There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests there is no significant impact on crime levels in a community from collaboration with ICE and the higher number of detainers issued.  This research on North Carolina by the Cato Institute found no relationship between federal immigration enforcement collaboration and local crime levels.

In addition to HB370, the General Assembly has crafted another attack on local authority in the form of HB135, which would impose harsh penalties on counties and municipalities for non-compliance with state immigration laws.

At a time when North Carolina has identified priorities that directly impact public safety but aren’t fully funded such as the need to fully fund Raise the Age legislation and to provide adults with the supports to re-enter communities through services the dedication of local resources to the detention of individuals for federal immigration authorities is an unfunded mandate that is likely to deteriorate community relations and jeopardize the safety of all North Carolinians.

Alexandra Forter Sirota is the Director of the Budget and Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

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