Costs will rein in Arizona's immigration crackdown

Arizona can arrest illegal immigrants now, but then what? Prison and deportation are both too expensive to sustain.

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    Arizona rancher David Walker stands at the border wall with Mexico on Aug. 15, in Hereford, Ariz. Walker was attending the United Border Coalition Tea Party Rally in support of Arizona's immigration law, SB1070, along a remote stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border.
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Suppose the US Supreme Court largely upholds Arizona's tough immigration law and, as a result, Arizona police pick up an extra 5,000 or 10,000 unlawful immigrants next year. Then what?

Arizona could slap illegal aliens with a $100 fine. It could arrest them. Or it could turn them over to federal officials, supposedly to be deported. The latter two options turn out to be expensive.

Around the world, country after country is facing the costly dilemma of what to do with perhaps 50 million illegal, undocumented immigrants collectively. It's a problem for Canada, Britain, France, Italy, and Spain. India tries to limit immigrants from Bangladesh. South Africa has troubles with illegal Zimbabwean immigrants.

Recommended: Do you know the facts behind Arizona's immigration law? Take our quiz.

Even Mexico has to deal with illegal aliens from Honduras and Guatemala.

Some countries try to obscure the problem. Japan puts black immigrants from Africa, called "trainees," to work at night on construction jobs where they are less visible, says Joseph Chamie, director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York. Other countries ignore the issue. Israel figures that almost half of its 220,000 foreign workers have no work permits.

Beside the moral, humanitarian, and legal issues surrounding illegal immigrants, their apprehension poses a sizable financial cost. In Arizona, police could arrest them under the new state law, but keeping them in already crowded jails costs roughly $100 a day per person. For 5,000 people, imprisonment costs could add up to $182.5 million a year. That's a hefty charge for a state struggling with a budget deficit of at least $368 million.

Presumably Arizona could save money by handing illegal immigrants over to the federal government for deportation. In fiscal 2008, the US deported 369,221 people. Deportations rose to 389,834 in 2009 under the Obama administration, and are predicted to reach 400,000 this fiscal year.

Whether Washington will pay for more deportations is problematic. The United States deports each year less than 4 percent of its estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. At that rate, it would take more than two decades to deport all of them.

The cost to deport all illegal immigrants would be at least $94 billion, Julie Myers, then-head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), estimated in 2007. Other estimates put the cost at three times that.

Because of a limited budget and political factors, each Washington administration has given ICE a set of priorities in enforcing immigration law. The priorities for the Obama administration are aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety, recent illegal entrants, and fugitive aliens (already convicted of crimes or previously deported), according to John Morton, the present head of ICE, in a memo dated June 30. ICE, however, "only has resources to remove approximately 400,000 aliens per year." In other words, Congress has not approved the money to enforce fully the immigration laws it has passed.

That leaves Arizona with the option of using fines and arrests to make life uncomfortable for illegal immigrants. Any serious enforcement of the Arizona law, notes Steve Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, would probably cause some illegal immigrants to go home or move to some other state. That would save taxpayer money.

Polls show the general public would approve of Arizona's measures to shrink its illegal immigrant population, estimated at 460,000.

David R. Francis writes a weekly column.

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