PHOENIX - Police agencies in Arizona have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars training officers to enforce the state's 2010 immigration law, despite claims from supporters that it wasn't going to cost much extra for the state's 15,000 officers to carry out the statute.
An informal survey by The Associated Press of selected police departments and a state agency that trains officers shows that seven agencies have spent a combined $640,000 on training that focused heavily on the law's requirement that officers, while enforcing other laws, question people's immigration status if they're believed to be in the country illegally. Other agencies were surveyed, but said no training cost estimates were available.
A federal judge gave police the go-ahead to start enforcing the law's questioning requirement on Sept. 18 after a two-year court battle waged by the Obama administration, immigrant rights advocates and others.
Lost in all the heated political rhetoric surrounding the law was the question about how much it would cost to carry out.
The spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in the days after the questioning requirement took effect that he didn't know why there would be any additional costs in enforcing the measure.
Matthew Benson said that immigration inquiries are just another line of questioning for officers to work into their routines when they stop someone and have good reason to make immigration inquiries.
A week later, when told about training costs, Benson said the amount being spent on the law would still pale in comparison to the estimated $934 million in net costs from illegal immigration that the state had to eat in 2011, the last year for which an estimate was available.
That estimate includes the costs of educating illegal immigrants, jailing illegal immigrants arrested on state crimes and providing health care for those in the country illegally. "We are not talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars," Benson said.
Beyond the training, there are costs to actually enforce the law. Those figures are not known, although they aren't as great as opponents had predicted.
Federal authorities who are charged with verifying the immigration status of people on behalf of local police departments said they haven't experienced a significant uptick in calls since officers started to enforce the questioning requirement.
Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor had predicted in 2010 that the law's immigration check requirement for all arrested people before they can be released from custody would result in higher jail costs.
The higher jail costs would come from those who would normally be cited and released for minor offenses, but who would have to be booked if federal authorities aren't able to quickly verify their immigration status, he said.
But Villasenor's interpretation of the law has since changed.
He said the prevailing view by police departments now is that, in cases where federal authorities didn't respond to an inquiry or there is no record of a person in an immigration database, they will fall back on their department's policies, which in Tucson is to cite and release them.
Still, Villasenor estimated his agency could make 50,000 immigration inquiries a year. He doesn't know how much that could cost the city in staff time.
Only one study has been conducted on the costs of enforcing the immigration law, but that examination by budget analysts for the Legislature concluded the costs couldn't be predicted and is considered outdated.
The study is based on an earlier proposed version of the law that would have expanded the state's trespassing law to criminalize the presence of illegal immigrants in Arizona and impose criminal penalties, such as jail time.
But the trespassing provision was later taken out of the proposal and replaced with the questioning requirement, which doesn't include criminal penalties.
Budget staffers at the Legislature haven't produced another study on the subject.
Federal immigration officials who in 2010 had predicted the questioning requirement could dramatically increase their workload and slow down response times on immigration checks say they don't have an estimate on how much the checks are costing Washington.
The $640,000 in training costs consists of an estimated $360,000 at the Phoenix Police Department; $123,000 at the Tucson Police Department; an estimated $23,000 at the Yuma County Sheriff's Office; about $2,000 at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office; an estimated $24,000 by the Flagstaff Police Department; and $28,000 by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. An additional $80,000 was spent by the Chandler Police Department, which also trained its civilian employees.
Paradise Valley Police Chief John
Bennett, who serves as president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, said there wasn't a lot of talk among police bosses about the costs of enforcing the immigration law, known as SB1070.
"Right now, our considerations are centered
around the actual enforcement of SB1070," Bennett said.
Capt. Eben Bratcher, a spokesman for the Yuma County Sheriff's Office, said he doubted that the immigration law will gobble up a lot of his agency's resources. "It's not like all of a sudden I'm going to be sending out squads to round up people," Bratcher said, noting that federal immigration agents are nearby and willing to help deputies with immigration inquiries.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose jurisdiction includes 50 miles of the state's borderlands, said enforcing the law will definitely cost taxpayers money. That is because once officers call federal authorities for help, they are going to have to wait for a response — and will be on the clock while they are waiting.
Estrada said there are other non-financial costs to consider.
He noted that officers awaiting responses from federal agents have the discretion of dropping the matter if they have more serious crime to respond to in their communities. "But if nothing comes up and they are waiting there, they could be patrolling and deterring something else around the jurisdiction," Estrada said.