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Gregoire to remove illegal immigrant inmates

Each prisoner costs state $90 a day

SEATTLE – Gov. Chris Gregoire is moving forward with clearing Washington prisons of illegal immigrants to save money, but at what may be a slower rate than originally planned after lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have hastened the process.

In a letter sent last week to the state Department of Corrections, Gregoire outlined the state’s approach to transferring illegal immigrant prisoners to federal custody. Her proposal, though, does not give the state as much authority as the original bill.

The slower rate of transferring prisoners to federal custody may also mean fewer savings for taxpayers because not as many prisoners are expected to be moved to immigration authorities.

“Time equals money here, so as long as we have to house them, it runs up additional charges for the state of Washington,” Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said Tuesday.

The original bill aimed to save the state $8 million in the next two-year budget cycle. The measure was part of a slew of bills to cut state costs in the face of a $9 billion deficit.

The bill’s demise left an $8 million gap in the Department of Corrections’ budget. Vail said state budget writers assumed the bill would pass, and now the department has to fill the budget hole. He added that it’s not known how much the department will be able to recoup.

Earlier, Vail said there are about 350 prisoners in Washington who would be eligible to be transferred. On average, he said, it costs the state $90 a day to imprison an inmate.

The bill would have allowed the Department of Corrections more flexibility in transferring illegal immigrant inmates. Now, Vail said, the department will have to coordinate with prosecutors and judges to work out a system in which the state asks for early release of inmates.

Originally, the state had considered copying an Arizona program in which corrections workers would have been trained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help process inmates suspected of being in the country illegally.

In her letter, Gregoire moved away from such a plan.

The “federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over the determination of immigration status and deportation activities,” Gregoire wrote. “At no time shall our state Department of Corrections or its staff be delegated a decision-making role.”

Gregoire also said that the Department of Corrections should provide access to information on obtaining legal representation to any inmate being considered for transfer. The governor made it clear that the state would not join in ICE’s rapid removal program.

For immigrant advocates, the shift in policy was welcome news. From the beginning, the main concern for immigration groups was protecting due process. Deportation procedures are conducted under a different court system than criminal cases. In many cases, legal representation is hard to obtain and immigrants who may be eligible to stay in the country end up signing deportation papers, advocates argue.

“We’re not opposed to the underlying scheme, but we wanted to make sure there’s a due process all along,” said Shankar Narayan, legislative director for Washington’s ACLU chapter.

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