A proposal moving through the North Carolina General Assembly would further shift costs to local governments to score ideological points with those seeking stricter immigration enforcement even as the evidence shows that forced cooperation with ICE doesn’t make communities safer.
Senate Bill 101, which passed the Senate last week, is modeled after bills introduced in previous sessions, with only some modifications that won’t protect local governments from the likelihood of lawsuits, nor reduce the pressure on local budgets.
In 2019, the Budget & Tax Center analyzed then House Bill 370 to assess the impact on local budgets of forced ICE cooperation. The cumulative cost of ICE cooperation over a decade at that time was estimated at nearly $82 million. Under a proposal that would seek to increase the number of detainers issued, a forward-looking estimate of what local governments could expect is likely higher.
That is even more so the case during COVID-19.
Forced cooperation with ICE raises grave concerns about overcrowding and pushes against recommendation to reduce jail admissions during a pandemic. Analysis of local jail populations by the UNC School of Government found that in 2019, 41 percent of jails exceed capacity in one month, while 56 percent exceed 90 percent of jail capacity. National research has found that many people are held in jail pre-trial and that increasing jail populations are in part a result of agreements that local jails make with federal and state agencies. During COVID-19, public health and criminal justice experts have recommended reducing jail admissions because they have been documented to spread infectious diseases. Yet forcing cooperation with federal immigration agencies would increase the number of people entering local jails and could impact the global fight to end the pandemic. ICE has been connected to spreading the coronavirus, not just in the United States but across the globe.
COVID-19 raises the costs of holding a person on an ICE detainer. The costs of holding someone in jail have been underestimated in normal times and are likely to be much higher during the pandemic. Direct health care costs, along with the cost of staffing, maintaining social distancing and implementing other CDC guidelines, cost taxpayers. These costs could, in part, be covered by state and federal dollars but Senate Bill 101 makes no provision for covering additional costs that would be incurred for holding someone for ICE.
County budgets have been hit hard by the pandemic. While the full impact on the upcoming fiscal year budget is not entirely clear, a number of counties have had to reduce services because of revenue hits to fees and other revenue sources in the past fiscal year and could need to do the same going forward. Local government employment has also remained below pre-COVID-19 levels. Raising costs for counties will require cuts to priority investments in vaccination campaigns, public schools, and infrastructure.
The impacts of this legislation won’t be felt equally across the state.
Small and rural counties have seen larger increases in jail costs in recent years: a 13 percent increase from 2007 to 2017 compared to just 2 percent for urban areas according to national analysis. Rural county budgets are also more likely to be hit hard by the downturn and less likely to receive aid to balance their budgets from state and federal governments.
Senate Bill 101 demonstrates that Senate leaders continue to pursue hate, not fiscal constraint.
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.