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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

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 Costs mount for counties as immigration reform languishes

By Charles Taylor
SENIOR STAFF WRITER

In Deep South Texas, Brooks County officials are seeing one of the seldom-mentioned consequences of a broken immigration system all too often.

Chief Deputy Benny Martinez recalls the sheriff’s office receiving a 911 call: A woman, lost in a remote area of the 944-square mile county — her husband gravely ill.

It’s dark and the wife, an undocumented immigrant, doesn’t know where she is. Her cell phone is dying. The only advice the sheriff’s office can give is to turn off her phone, to conserve its battery, and call back after daybreak, when she could, perhaps, identify a landmark. Morning came too late. The man had died amid the scrubby brush land.

His was one of the 300 bodies to be recovered in the last three years, Martinez said, and the county of 7,200 — one of the poorest in the state — must “eat” the associated costs. It does not touch the Mexican border, but is one county, Hidalgo, removed.

“It’s difficult in the sense that it creates a hardship on the office because not only do we have to process those bodies, as mandated by law, but we also still have everything else that comes along with it,” Martinez said, “whether notifying family members or family members calling in from various states throughout the U.S. or countries, whether it be from central America or Mexico”

While immigration reform is stalled in Congress, Brooks and other border and near-border counties find themselves caught in the middle of a seemingly unresolvable dilemma.

In 2013, the sheriff’s office spent more than $155,000 out of its $615,000 budget on transport, autopsies and fees related to migrant death investigations.

Martinez said there is no federal aid to help — which the letter was requesting — and the county’s budget is already stressed. Last fall, elected officials and the sheriff took 10 percent pay cuts; other county employees were cut 3 percent.

County officials wrote members of their congressional delegation in December in a cry for help.

“It is now a daily practice for the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department to respond to stranded, vulnerable, weak and many times deceased immigrants in the punishing desert-like terrain of Brooks County,” County Judge Raul Ramirez wrote in a letter, signed by all four members of the Commissioners Court.

In another non-border county, Pinal County, Ariz., the county Board of Supervisors has put the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on 100-day notice that it will cease to house ICE detainees unless payments to house them can be increased.

The existing per diem of $59.64 was agreed upon in 2006, according to county officials, but it’s been a money-losing proposition ever since — costing approximately $3.5 million a year.

County Manager Greg Stanley, who was not county manager at the time the deal was inked, said the true cost of housing ICE detainees is closer to $75 per day.

“We’d still like to come to an agreement,” Stanley said, “and locally we have a really good relationship with the local ICE office.” The county is open to continuing negotiations. But if a deal can’t be worked out, he foresees “pretty significant” staff cuts.

Southeast of Pinal County, Cochise County — an actual border county — has seen its first-responder resources strained by illegal-immigration-related duties.

“We’re pretty much a pass-through community here,” said Bill Miller, fire district chief and chair of the Cochise County EMS Association. Fire districts in the county, funded by local taxes, are absorbing the costs of responding to undocumented immigrants.

“They come over the Huachuca Mountains and they figure it’s a shortcut into the large cities such as Tucson and Phoenix,” he said. “In reality it’s not.” On the mountain, nighttime temperatures can dip below freezing; in daylight hours the mercury can top 100 degrees.

Miller said smugglers knows as “coyotes” often mislead their human cargo into thinking they are being dropped off closer to big cities than they actually are. “Sometimes they just abandon them; they just drop them off and say, see those lights? That’s Phoenix.”

In a group of “20, 40, 50” immigrants, if some lag behind because of age or medical problems, the rest of the group will leave them behind.

“So what will end up happening is that they get distressed,” he said, “and they’ll try to find their way down through the mountain or they find a hiker; they’ll call for assistance. And that’s where your EMS providers, our fire department providers will have to call out our tactical rescue teams to go up there and remove them from the mountain.”

Such rescues can take several hours even up to half a day, he said, depending on their complexity.

“Border patrol will assist us in getting them off the hill; they’re very cooperative about that, but they’re not placing them into custody,” Miller said. “We’ll transport them into to the hospital, and typically what ends up happening, we eat the transport cost,” which can run to $1,500 per ambulance trip — much higher if a medevac helicopter is involved.

“Our best-case scenario would be, we’d like to get reimbursed from the federal government, and our federal government charges the Mexican government,” he said. “It’s beyond me how they would do that.”