Many may want them gone, but illegal immigrants in Oklahoma can be good business.
So say county officials who handle the purse strings of some sheriff's departments in the state. Millions in revenue for transporting and detaining immigrants for the federal government have financed jobs, departments and, in some cases, entire jails.
"It's a good business plan," said Tim Albin, chief of the services division that oversees the budget for the Tulsa County sheriffs department. "It allows us to bank and put money back and carry over for other things."
But not all immigration agency contracts come with a fairy tale ending punctuated by dollar signs. Several counties in the state have felt the burn of canceled or stalled agreements.
Garvin County had a near-miss earlier this year and Jefferson County residents are reminded of a failed deal by the sight of a vacant building only steps from the county
Agreements between local governments and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency are common: About 240 jails and detention sites operated by local and state governments are used by the agency to hold immigrants.
Many are also paid to move detainees from one jail to another.
Carl Rusnok, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, said nearly 293,000 non-U.S. citizens were removed from the country as of
At some point, most were held in a jail or detention center.
The agency is funded to hold 33,400 detainees a day. Last fiscal year, the agency spent about 45 percent of its $5.7 billion budget on detention and removal efforts, including paying local governments to house and transfer its detainees.
Sgt. Shannon Clark, head of the 287(g) federal immigration program in Tulsa, said transport and detention brought in nearly $6 million for the Tulsa County jail over an 18-month period that ended in January.
The sheriff's department budget is about $8 million, Albin said. The operational budget for the jail is $26 million.
Since 2007, Tulsa County has partnered with federal immigration officials to arrest and jail suspected illegal immigrants. More than 10,000 detainees have passed through its doors.
"It's a quality-of-life issue," he said. "The program definitely has brought opportunities" but it's also removing illegal immigrants off the street.
Removing illegal immigrants frees up jobs, lessening the number of taxpayers relying on unemployment. It also reduces crime rates, he said.
Before the program, the sheriff's department employed a staff of 230. This year, 360 were on the department payroll. The county took over operation of the $60 million jail in 2005. It was previously run by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company based in Tennessee.
Now the jail is operating inside its budget with money left over for improvements, Albin said.
"That cash flow is a good resource for us." Albin said. "When we were looking at plans, we knew these kinds of contracts would help."
Sheriff Steve Brooks said it felt like taking Christmas away when he laid off five deputies in March. A contract to run a holding site for illegal immigrants had stalled, lost in the Washington, D.C., bureaucracy.
It meant about $23,000 a year to the county had evaporated.
The department has an annual budget of about $400,000 a year with 10 full-time employees and four deputies assigned to transport immigration
"We started talking about layoffs in February," Brooks said. "The hardest thing was doing it. I promised them — as soon as
Four months later, the contract was renewed. Brooks hired back one man to work in the jail and two to transport detainees. The agreement with federal immigration officials also pays the department to pick up detainees from other jails and drive them to federal sites, primarily Tulsa County and a processing center in Oklahoma City.
"This contract stimulates our budget and gives jobs to the community," Brooks said. "We don't use county funds to do federal business, but the money brings something here."
Something more, he said, than just taking away illegal immigrants.
"We're not going to get rich doing this, but we're not going to go broke," he said. "It makes things better for the citizens of Garvin County."
Brooks said he's often confronted by those who don't believe the program is humane. The irony of the job also isn't lost on him: if all the illegal immigrants were gone or no longer illegal, his budget and his roster would shrink again.
"I guess we'd have to figure something else out," Brooks said. "Right now, we're upholding the law."
On a given day, Brooks holds about 20 immigration detainees in his 72-bed jail.
"We went from a good size to nothing at all," said Jefferson County jail Administrator Ron Weatherly. Things changed when an agreement with federal immigration officials ended.
From 1998 until 2003, Jefferson County officials contracted with federal immigration authorities to house immigrants awaiting deportation. They were housed in the 120-bed facility built by the county to bring jobs and funds through federal contracts.
On a summer afternoon in 2003, buses rolled down Main Street in Waurika, loaded 72 illegal immigrants and drove out of town.
After years of questions about the sheriff's department budget and how the annex was being run, federal officials abruptly ended the contract.
A federal spokeswoman at the time said the site no longer fit the agency's needs.
When the jail closed, the community of nearly 2,000 people lost about 40 jobs and the economic impact of $2.5 million generated by the jail.
The jail sits empty to this day.
"I saw people in my store that I don't see anymore," said local grocery store owner Stanley Good. "Those jobs are gone, those people are gone. It's been hard."
Good said he made some money selling meat and bread to the jail. That also went away.
"When you take jobs away from a small farming community like this, it's tough to rebound," he said. "And more and more places like this are drying up."
Weatherly said without the jail, the sheriff's department budget is only enough to pay the salaries of two full-time employees.
In the case of Jefferson County, the nearly five-year boom was a mirage.
"There's always a prevailing wisdom," he said. "All I know is what we had couldn't last."
BY THE NUMBERS
$54.13: Amount Tulsa County makes per day per federal immigration detainee.
$27: Amount paid per inmate by the state Corrections Department.
$43.50: Amount Garvin County makes per day per federal immigration detainee.
$27: Amount Garvin County Sheriff's Department is paid per prisoner for county inmates.
Corrections Corporation of America, a Tennessee-based private prison company, has offered three jails to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for the detention of illegal immigrant criminals awaiting deportation. More than 2,000 Oklahoma inmates are currently held at those jails. State officials say the move is likely financially motivated since federal contracts pay more per prisoner than the state.