PHOENIX -- Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano is defending the decision by the Obama administration to pay states only a fraction of what they are owed for incarcerating illegal immigrants.
"The administration has chosen to support states in a number of other ways,' Napolitano said Friday. She said her own agency has increased funding for other programs.
Her comments came during a telephonic press conference arranged by the White House after the president signed legislation appropriating an extra $600 million immediately for new border security measures. Napolitano said the cash, which includes funding for 1,000 new Border Patrol officers, will help cut down on smuggling of humans and drugs.
But the package includes no additional funds for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.
Federal law requires the U.S. Department of Justice to reimburse states for the cost of incarcerating people in this country illegally who have been convicted of violating state laws. The law sets authorized funding at $950 million a year.
But that legal requirement is subject to funds being available.
Obama earlier this year requested Congress to put just $330 million into the budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, the same as Congress authorized for the current year, and $70 million less than last year.
That has left federal lawmakers from Arizona on both sides of the political aisle dissatisfied: Both Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, said they specifically requested the administration provide the full funding.
"I think the administration has chosen to support states in a number of other ways,' Napolitano said. She specifically cited Operation Stonegarden which provides cash for state and local police in border areas.
"That's money they can use for overtime, to hire new folks, to help pay for vehicles and equipment they need for law enforcement,' she said. Her agency provided $60 million this year, of which nearly $13.9 million went to Arizona police agencies.
But it was Napolitano who, during her six years as Arizona governor, repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for failing to fund the SCAAP program at the $950 million level.
In a 2006 letter to George W. Bush, for example, Napolitano and other governors said the real solution to the problem of "criminal aliens' is for the federal government to secure the border. That would cut down on the number of people entering the country illegally -- including those who commit crimes once they are here.
In fact, the governors said they are locking up more criminals who are here illegally is because of the failure to secure the border.
"However, until the federal government can achieve its goal of restoring safety and security throughout our border regions, every effort should be made to compensate the state and local governments who have stepped up to fill this gap by policing the regions and incarcerating criminal aliens at their own expense,' the governors wrote.
And as recently as November 2008 -- after Napolitano knew she was joining the Obama administration but before she quit as governor, she said she would push the federal government to pay money she believes Arizona is owed.
Jan Brewer, who succeeded Napolitano as governor, earlier this year put the accumulated debt of what Arizona alone is owed in SCAAP funds since 2003 at $700 million
On the subject of the new legislation, Napolitano declined to say how many of those 1,000 new Border Patrol officers will wind up in Arizona.
"We will put those agents where we think the needs are greatest,' she said.
"That moves over time, as you know,' Napolitano continued. "We will want to put our resources where the needs are manifest.'
She cautioned, though, that border residents should not expect to see any immediate changes.
"It takes, on average, eight months from the time of hire to get a new agent trained, located and on the ground,' Napolitano said.
Napolitano had a similar answer when asked about two "forward operating bases' that are being funded in the legislation.
She said these bases will enable Border Patrol agents to be located at the border instead of having to drive there.
"We have several options for those,' Napolitano said. "We have not determined where those are going to be.'