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Detaining immigrants is big business for some Oklahoma counties

The detention of illegal immigrants brings in millions of dollars for counties in the state. Jobs, jails and upkeep are funded by dollars generated through federal contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
BY VALLERY BROWN Published: August 29, 2010

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 courthouse.


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 July 22.

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.

Tulsa County

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."

Garvin County

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.

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$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.


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