By Guest Columnist WESLEY THARPE, research director for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute
The hot topic of immigration is never far from Georgians’ TV screens and Twitter feeds these days. Stories of migrant children taken from their parents at the border captivate viewers on the nightly news. Candidates for high Georgia offices compete over who can be most threatening to the immigrant family next door. And President Donald Trump repeatedly claims that newcomers from other lands are bad for taxpayers, harm the economy and upend the nation’s social fabric.
Georgia’s city and county governments play an important role in the debate as well, since they hold some discretion on how closely to entangle local law enforcement with the role of federal immigration agents. Many Georgians naturally carry strong views on the subject, for philosophical reasons or due to personal concern about immigrant families and communities.
But what most Georgia taxpayers probably don’t know is the extent to which they are footing the bill.
A new report released this month sheds some light on the complex and often contentious debate. Published by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Voluntary Immigration Enforcement a Costly Choice for Georgia Communities details the cost to Georgia taxpayers when their local lawmakers choose to embrace a hand-in-glove relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
The key findings include:
- Honoring non-binding requests from ICE to arrest and hold a person cost Georgia’s local governments an estimated $88 million over the past decade, or about $9 million a year. These expenses arise because detaining unauthorized immigrants with minor fractions drives up detention and salary costs in local jails.
- Additional costs accrue in counties with so-called 287(g) agreements, which divert local resources and officers toward doing the work of federal immigration agents. Gwinnett County flags more immigrants for ICE than any other 287(g) jurisdiction in the country. It spends at least an extra $1.2 million a year on its aggressive program. Cobb, Hall and Whitfield counties operate similar programs but officials there say they don’t track how much ICE cooperation costs, despite some claims it generates a net gain.
- Most local costs for immigration enforcement aren’t reimbursed. Federal grants only cover about 12 percent of the direct budget costs associated with detaining and holding people for ICE in Georgia jails. And Gwinnett County got back no more than 10 percent of the cost of its aggressive approach since launching the effort in 2009.
These immediate financial costs likely minimize the true long-term local budget and economic fallout. That’s because harsh crackdowns on immigrant neighbors inflict serious long-term social and economic costs for families and communities, especially children.
More than 185,000 Georgia children who are U.S. citizens live in a home with at least one undocumented adult. When a parent or caregiver is deported, extreme psychological harm is common and family finances can crumble. National research finds deporting an undocumented parent reduces household income on average by around 70 percent.
Supporters of ICE cooperation usually justify the policy under the guise of improving public safety, but such claims wither under scrutiny. Minor traffic offenses are the leading reason why unauthorized immigrants get flagged for ICE, not serious crimes. And when immigrant communities can’t distinguish between local peace officers and ICE agents, they are less likely to report crimes or provide police with tips.
Many of Georgia’s local governments are weighing whether to embrace voluntary enforcement. Some are considering deepening their federal entanglement, while others may be open to scaling back. Public officials striving to chart the best course for their communities can now carefully weigh the costs of aggressive enforcement and insist supporters prove any claims of a net gain from the program.