The federal government spends about $1.4 billion a year incarcerating migrants charged or convicted of crimes, and states spent at least $1.1 billion more, Congress’s chief investigative arm said in a report Thursday.
Nearly all of them — 95 percent — were either immigrants living in the U.S. illegally at the time of their crimes or were deemed deportable because of the seriousness of their offenses, and removed from the country when their sentences were up, said the Government Accountability Office.
But 15 percent of those released from 2011 to 2016 broke the law again and ended up in a federal or state prison anyway, the investigators said.
More than 300 people managed to get rearrested for federal crimes at least three times during the five-year period the GAO studied.
The report is the first since the beginning of this decade to look at the level of immigrants in the criminal justice system, and investigators said things actually have improved slightly since that 2011 report. That year, there were 199,100 criminal aliens in federal prisons. In 2016, the audit estimated there were 184,000.
Aliens accounted for more than a third of the entire federal prison population during that time, and 77 percent of them were Mexican.
Honduras, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador were Nos. 2, 3 and 4 on the list, with a combined 10 percent among them.
Pro-security Republicans who requested the report said that the high numbers of Mexicans and Central Americans underscore the need for President Trump’s border wall.
“The location of these countries leaves little doubt that criminal aliens are exploiting our porous border to gain access to our country,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.
GAO investigators said the criminals were concentrated in three border states — California, Texas and Arizona — which accounted for nearly two-thirds of all arrests of criminal aliens who end up in federal prisons.
Immigration offenses dominated the docket at 42 percent. Drug offenses, traffic violations and obstruction of justice followed.
About 6,000 had criminal histories that included homicide and several hundred had charges related to international terrorism.
Investigators took a deeper look at terrorism charges in recent years and concluded that more than 60 percent were against immigrants to the U.S. — though some of them had managed to get U.S. citizenship along the way.
Investigators said their best data was on federal prisoners, while the data on aliens in state custody was much rougher because federal officials are only able to track migrants who were reported to Justice Department officials for reimbursement under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, or SCAAP. That pays states and localities part of the costs for holding immigrants who crossed the border illegally in their own prisons and jails.
But not all localities participate in SCAAP, meaning the information is by definition limited. And SCAAP money can only cover migrants who were already deportable at the time they were arrested.
The Justice Department, in its official response to the GAO report, said “large numbers of criminal aliens” weren’t being counted by the audit.