Guilford County officials rarely discuss the impact of illegal immigrants on the county’s budget, but Donald Trump’s presidency – and a potential change in federal policies regarding those in the country illegally – are opening up that dialogue in a big way.
County taxpayers may not realize it, but each time they pay their property tax bill, the amount owed is significantly more because of county services devoted to supporting the illegal immigrant population. In almost every case, illegal aliens in Guilford County have the same access to county services that legal citizens do.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said that every time the board wrangles with setting the tax rate or trying to fund a major new project, the influx of illegal immigrants is always an implicit factor, since it’s draining county funds and putting more pressure on county services.
“It comes up a lot,” he said, “though not specifically in relation to what we, as the Board of Commissioners, should or should not do regarding people who – other than being here illegally – are law-abiding citizens.”
Phillips said the starting point for addressing the issue as it pertains to county spending is determining the extent of the problem.
“How many people are here illegally, and what does that cost the taxpayers?” Phillips said.
According to Phillips, there’s no question it’s costing the county a great deal.
“Our schools, for instance – there are children in our public schools who were not born here and who are here illegally,” he said. “Health and human services provides about a billion dollars of assistance annually to individuals who reside in Guilford County. How many people using those services are here illegally?”
Phillips said Guilford County also pays to operate the jail and some of the inmates held there are non-citizens.
“How many of our detainees are here illegally?” he added.
According to Phillips, it’s difficult to know how to address the problem but it’s important for Guilford County officials to somehow get a handle on it. He said costs for social services, schools, foster care and other county programs are going up continuously due to an increasing demand for those services.
“Illegal immigrants are not the only reason for the increasing demands,” Phillips said, adding that those pressures do play a significant role in those rising costs. “So those are very real front-line issues that we have direct oversight of as administrators. Can I sit here and tell you that’s OK with me? Absolutely not – that’s not OK with me. Nor do I have a perfect solution to that dilemma. Would I like to be part of a solution, given the ever-increasing demand for services? Yes.”
Phillips said he’d like to see a “methodical, thoughtful and empathetic” process focused on answering the questions around illegal immigrant services so the county can find ways to address the issue, especially since the demand for county services is currently growing “at an unsustainable pace.”
“While it’s one of the most challenging and complex issues in America,” he said, “we’ve had our head in the sand for far too long.”
Guilford County goes to great expense to provide social services to its residents. Though those are often federally funded programs, the county has to cover the cost of administering them. In recent years, especially, the county has paid more and more to hire social services staff. In many cases, there is no requirement someone be a citizen to benefit from those services.
Take the county’s child services for instance. In order to qualify for child services from the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services, the child or the applicant for the child must be a citizen or a US non-citizen who resides in the country legally.
However, that policy also says this: “Non-citizen families who are not legal residents (including the child and the parents) may receive services in the following instances if all other eligibility criteria are met: (1) If the child needs child care to support child protective services or the child is receiving foster care services; or (2) if the child needs child care to support his/her developmental needs.”
Perhaps this is the most important statement in the policy: “If someone applies for services claiming to be a citizen, no verification is needed. The applicant’s statement regarding citizenship or residency is accepted unless there is a reason to question the individual’s legal status.”
Also, if a social service worker does discover someone is here illegally, the policy for child services states, “The Division does not require workers determining child care eligibility to report any citizenship or residency information to Immigration and Naturalization Service.”
To receive food stamps, applicants do need to be an American citizen or in the country legally – however, those applying aren’t required to show any evidence to that effect. The policy states, “Unless questionable, accept the applicant’s signature on the application workbook as sufficient verification of citizenship.”
When it comes to getting access to the county’s health services, nothing regarding citizenship is required. Guilford County Health Director Merle Green said the county’s health division does not check whether someone is here legally.
“Regarding your question, we do not ask the legal status of our patients,” she wrote in an email. “Governmental entities who receive governmental funds are many times not allowed to do so. We have many international clients though, and we feel that the community appreciates us providing services to all residents, because communicable infections (such as TB and Influenza) affect all of us, so it would be short-sighted to only provide vaccinations to those who were born in the US.”
According to Green, when the county’s health division holds focus groups with local residents, they often say they want all of those in the county to have access to county health services.
“They always remind us of the scenario where they are on an elevator or in a store’s checkout line and someone is coughing and they say, ‘We do not want to have to breathe the germs of a sick person; that way all of us are more protected.’”
Providing those services, however, costs money and increases demand on health staff.
Guilford County’s two jails are another place where the county’s taxpayers spend a lot due to the illegal immigrant problem. Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Major Chuck Williamson, who serves as the Court Services Bureau commander for that department, does have some hard numbers. On Friday, Feb. 3, for instance, there were 41 inmates in Guilford County’s two jails who have federal immigration detainers in addition to their pending state criminal charges. That’s 41 with immigration issues in jail that the Sheriff’s Department knows about – there are no doubt many others being held who are illegal aliens but have not been issued a detainer.
Williamson explained how the department works with the feds when someone is being held on criminal charges.
“We currently do not hold any Inmate based solely on a Federal immigration detainer,” Williams wrote in an email. “Instead, once the local criminal charges for these Inmates are disposed of in Court, we contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), which is an agency within the United States Department of Homeland Security, and notify ICE that the Inmate has resolved his/her criminal charges and that the Inmate will be released unless ICE provides us with a Federal arrest warrant or Federal Court order authorizing us to continue to hold the Inmate for ICE. If the Sheriff’s Office is not provided with these documents by ICE, we release the Inmate.”
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said it currently costs $76 a day to house an inmate in the jail. That means it cost the county $3,116 a day to hold those 41 inmates now known to be illegal aliens. For a year at that same level, the cost comes to over $1.1 million.
In addition to money, there’s a price in human terms paid by the victims of crimes committed by those who are here illegally.
Barnes said his department doesn’t have the power to act as immigration officials.
“When we get in an undocumented alien, we report that to ICE,” Barnes said. “If they don’t send anything over – normally they don’t – the department does not hold them.”
Barnes said that, if ICE wants the Sheriff’s Department to hold someone, ICE needs to provide specific information as to when the inmate will be picked up.
“They used to send open-ended detainers,” Barnes said. “We don’t recognize those and we have made them aware of it.”
He also said that, if no official documentation is presented in a timely manner, the Sheriff’s Department lets the person go. Barnes said that, otherwise, the county is opening up itself to liability issues due to potential false imprisonment lawsuits.
Barnes said there’s no penalty or action taken when someone is found to be an illegal immigrant but he or she hasn’t committed any other crime.
“If a guy walks up to me and says, ‘I’m here illegally,’ my response is ‘Shame on you,’” Barnes said.
He said it’s common for officers to come across a situation where there’s good reason to believe people are illegal immigrants but his officers have no authority to enforce immigration law.
One question on the minds of county officials and many others is whether that policy will be changing. On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Trump signed an executive order titled, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.”
Section 8 of that executive order reads: “Federal-State Agreements. It is the policy of the executive branch to empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer in the interior of the United States to the maximum extent permitted by law.”
When Barnes was asked if that executive order would make a difference in empowering his officers to handle immigration matters, he replied, “Words – they need to change the law to allow us to do anything.”
ICE officials this week weren’t able to shed much light on the meaning of the new order. The ICE office in Washington, DC, when asked about the implications of the president’s recent directive, referred the Rhino Times to a regional ICE official who said he didn’t wish to comment at this time. He told the Rhino that the situation was “in flux,” which, he said, made it difficult to comment publicly on the matter. He referred all questions to another ICE official in Washington who did not return a call from the Rhino Times.
Like the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, the Greensboro Police Department does not enforce immigration law or inquire about the citizenship status of those it comes in contact with unless a crime is committed.
Greensboro Police Deputy Chief Mike Richey said, “We do not ask immigration status.”
He said that status could come into play when a crime is committed, but as for those the officers merely interview in the course of duty, or those who are the victims of crime, immigration status isn’t something the department considers.
“It does not come up,” he said.
Richey said that, if there is, say, a traffic stop and a warrant shows up or there’s a request for information, the officer will enforce the warrant or provide the information. He said that’s true whether it’s a warrant from the Burlington Police Department, ICE or any other law enforcement agency.
Richey also said the Greensboro Police Department does not keep any sort of database with immigration information since that’s not something the department is charged with doing.
According to Richey, a change in the law would be required for the Greensboro police to have the power to enforce immigration law.
Barnes also said the law would have to be changed for his department to take any action in that regard.
In the meantime, the sheriff said, the problem has become a giant one.
“Whether it’s 10, 12 or 14 million people, let’s be real; we can’t find all these folks,” Barnes said,
Barnes said the country has gradually gotten itself into deep water with no good way out. He said that in 1998, he testified before a congressional committee that former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms sat on meant to address the problem of illegal immigration and border security.
Barnes said he does have his own suggestion as to how to handle the current situation – though, or course, he’s not in a position to implement it. He said federal officials should come out one week and let illegal aliens know that they have until Friday of that week to go to a federal official and turn themselves in.
Barnes said they should be told: “We will vet you and if, for the next two years, you don’t break the law and you pay your taxes, you can have citizenship. You have to register and you have stay out of trouble for two years. But on Saturday, when we find you and you don’t live here or have a work visa, you’re gone.”
Barnes said that, at the same time that happened, there needed to be a drastic increase in border security.
He said much of the sex trade, drug trade and other illicit business taking place in America is due to the unsecure border.
“A lot of money is leaving this country,” Barnes said.