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L.A. County sheriff protests proposed cuts in federal funding

June 11, 2009 |  9:16 pm

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca expressed serious concern today about a White House proposal to cut hundreds of millions in federal funds that offset the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants at the local level.

As part of the federal budget released last month, President Barack Obama eliminated funding for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program(SCAAP), which paid local governments $400 million last year.

Baca, who runs the largest county jail system in the nation, said the loss of the funds — typically about $14 million annually — would be particularly difficult given the state budget crisis and cutbacks by Los Angeles County officials who face diminishing tax revenues.

It cost the county $97 million to incarcerate illegal immigrants last year, and that’s expected to increase to $100 million this year, a sheriff’s spokesman said. The sheriff cannot just turn the immigrants over to federal immigration officials because law requires that they be prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated before they can be deported.

“California happens to be the largest state with the largest illegal immigrant population," Baca said. "Thus, when the president zeros out this reimbursement program, it sends a message: We don’t care what it does to deplete your local dollars.”

California’s share of the federal funding had already declined during the last decade from 68% to 39% as more states applied for the money. The program covers only about 11% of the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants statewide.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who visited White House officials last month to lobby for SCAAP funding, called the cuts “pathetic.”

Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined 11 other governors in sending a letter to the leaders of the House Appropriations Committee urging them to fully fund the program at a cost of $950 million.

A spokeswoman for the governor said he is continuing to lobby for more funding.

“Every SCAAP dollar we get in reimbursement is a dollar that can be spent on healthcare services and other general fund programs that are now suffering difficult cuts as a result of the economic recession,” spokeswoman Lisa Page said.

Baca said he spoke with White House representatives and members of the California delegation during a visit to Washington last month, and was reassured that Congress members, such as Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), who have proposed legislation reinstating the funding will succeed, as they did under Presidents Bush and Clinton.

Earlier this month, the appropriations committee voted to restore $300 million of the program’s funding, and that proposal could be taken up by the House as early as next week, staff said.

Calvert had proposed adding another $100 million drawn from excess U.S. Census money allotted under the federal stimulus, but his proposal failed.

Calvert, who said he has been hearing from California sheriffs upset about losing the federal money, said he plans to keep pursuing it.

“This is a federal responsibility,” he said. “We’ve got to come back and add money in because it’s absolutely necessary.”

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske