Gregoire sends feds an invoice for $50 million

OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire on Monday accused the federal government of shirking its responsibility to pay for incarcerating criminal illegal aliens.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Gregoire asked the federal government to either reimburse the state nearly $50 million for two years worth of prison costs or take custody of all illegal immigrants incarcerated here.

During the past two years, the state has averaged nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants behind bars, according to figures released by Gregoire.

As least one other governor has made similar demands for reimbursement in recent years, to no avail.

Gregoire, who released the letter at her regular press briefing, said the letter was not a publicity stunt. But she acknowledged it was partly a response to a growing trend of the federal government passing off costs to the states in areas such as health care and homeland security.

"If we're going to continue to see nothing but cuts come our way ... then I think turnaround's fair play," Gregoire said during the press briefing. "They have to live up to their responsibility."

Gregoire pointed out that Washington's prisons have grown so crowded that the state ships hundreds of inmates each year to prisons in other states.

Gregoire cited the federal government's State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), which reimburses states for incarcerating criminal illegal immigrants.

The federal government has been reimbursing only a fraction of the true costs, Gregoire and other governors maintain.

Last year, for instance, it cost the state about $27 million to incarcerate an average 995 illegal immigrants at any given time, according to an "invoice" attached to Gregoire's letter. But the federal government reimbursed the state only about $1.7 million.

In other words, Gregoire said in her letter, the federal government paid about $4.75 per day per prisoner — about 6.4 percent of the actual cost.

"If they can show me how we can incarcerate somebody at $4.75 a day, that would be a trick," Gregoire told reporters.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has been pestering the federal government with similar invoices for several years.

"Basically, the answers we've gotten are nonanswers," said Pati Urias, spokeswoman for Napolitano. "The governor has said she plans to continue sending bills until we get some money."

While the requests for full reimbursement apparently have been ignored, Congress did increase funding for SCAAP last year after receiving a joint letter from 14 governors — including Gregoire, Napolitano, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But funding for the program still falls far short of what it costs the states to incarcerate criminal illegal immigrants, the governors argue.

The federal Department of Justice did not return calls Monday.

Gregoire said the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government responsibility for keeping illegal immigrants from entering the country.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or