Counties could get money for border cases

WASHINGTON - Northern border counties such as Whatcom in Washington state would receive reimbursements from the federal government to cover their costs for border-related cases under an amendment to the immigration reform bill adopted by the Senate.

Whatcom County officials estimate they spend roughly $2 million a year handling such cases.

"This will certainly help create a more equitable situation," said Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo. Local governments along the U.S.-Mexican border already receive reimbursements. The amendment, offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was adopted late Monday. The immigration legislation debate could stretch into next week as senators wrangle over how best to secure the nation's borders and what to do with the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States.

Cantwell said her amendment would authorize spending $28 million annually to help cover the costs of local governments along the northern border for prosecuting cases, detaining suspects and constructing holding facilities.

"If the federal government is going to keep dumping cases on these communities, then the federal government needs to help cover the costs," said Cantwell. "America's northern border communities play a critical role in keeping our country secure and they need our help if they're going to keep doing the job."

The reimbursements would cover investigations and arrests begun by federal law enforcement agencies along with those cases referred to state or local authorities, Cantwell said.

In Whatcom County, Elfo said, those arrested in border-related cases are often held in local jails, prosecuted by local prosecutors and add to local courtloads. The county, in some cases, has to provide a public defender.

Roughly 85 percent of the cases launched by federal investigators end up being tried by local prosecutors, he said.

Between 140 and 160 fugitives caught trying to cross the border into Canada over the past several years end up being held and prosecuted by local jurisdictions, Elfo said. Two murders in 2006 were committed by suspects who "bounced back" into northwest Washington state after being refused entry into Canada, he said.

"Two million dollars will certainly help," he said.

Cantwell's amendment was attached to an immigration reform bill in the Senate last year, but Congress failed to agree on a final version of the bill before adjourning for the year.