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Goodlatte's "SAFE to Harass" Act Doubles Down on Enforcement and Cost to Taxpayers

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We know that House Republicans are in denial about the human cost of immigration enforcement and massive deportations. That’s why they’d rather kick immigrant families out of their offices than face up to the true consequences of enforcement-only policies. This week, two new developments make it clear that the denial runs deep: Congress isn’t even willing to acknowledge the financial cost that enforcement is imposing right now on state and local governments, and the SAFE To Harass Act would (unsurprisingly) just make the problem worse.

Immigration enforcement always ends up being more costly to state and local governments than they ever imagine. Alabama’s law HB 56 cost an estimated $11 billion to the state’s economy. Arizona spent $1.5 million just to defend SB 1070 against court challenges—and that’s before the case went to the Supreme Court (where much of the law was struck down). But it’s hard to feel too bad for states and cities that pass anti-immigrant laws, only to realize they don’t work as intended (unless the intention is to line Kris Kobach’s pockets).

It’s another thing entirely when a state or city is bearing the cost of a federal enforcement mandate that the local government doesn’t necessarily support. That’s why Miami-Dade County decided this week to stop paying to hold undocumented immigrants in jail after they’re supposed to be released so that they can be picked up by ICE agents. The practice of ICE asking local cops to keep an immigrant in jail for an extra 48 hours so that ICE can take them into custody (and probably deport them), known as an immigration “detainer,” has come under fire around the country this year—it’s a cheap way for ICE to put out a dragnet to round up immigrants with traffic offenses and force local governments to foot the bill. Miami-Dade, for example, has “sent the federal government invoices for hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses a year”—but “has been paid far less than other, smaller Florida counties” in return. And it’s not alone: in the past fiscal year, the money state and local governments requested in federal SCAAP grants (one of the ways the federal government reimburses them for enforcement) was six times the amount of money Congress appropriated.

Now, Miami-Dade County is the latest to tell the government that it will no longer pay for the privilege of helping ICE tear families apart. As County Commissioner Sally Heyman said, “Not only is it about saving money. It’s about saving people.”

So what’s House Republicans’ solution to the problem of not paying local police departments enough to enforce the policies they already have on the books? Force them to do even more, obviously. That’s the lesson of the SAFE To Harass Act—the first immigration bill the House Judiciary Committee passed this year. The Congressional Budget Office (last seen pointing out that the Senate’s immigration bill would save $1 trillion over 20 years) released its“score” of the SAFE Act this week, and found—duh—that it would cost the federal government $22.9 billion over 5 years. (Apparently Bob Goodlatte and company were too scared of the costs to ask the CBO to score a 10- or 20-year window, like their Senate counterparts insisted on for S744.) That’s because the CBO assumes that the federal government would go from giving state and local governments one-sixth of the money they spend detaining only immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, like they do now, to giving them all the money they need to detain any immigrant who’s been chargedwith a crime—i.e. any immigrant who’s been pulled over by some wannabe Arpaio for having a broken taillight and gotten charged with driving without a license. So the $4.6 billion annual cost of the SAFE to Harass Act won’t just fall on the Congress that passes it—much of it will fall on state and local governments like Miami-Dade County.

It would be great if the CBO score, or the SCAAP gap, or Miami-Dade’s new detainer policy forced Bob Goodlatte and House Republicans to confront the reality of the immigration policies they’re pushing. The damage done by the SAFE to Harass Act, to budgets and communities, just isn’t worth it. But if Goodlatte and company won’t even acknowledge the cost in dollars, how will they ever acknowledge the cost of human lives?