Straddling the fence

Given California’s ongoing border crisis and swift descent toward systemic failure, it is only natural that a number of unique and, in some cases, truly odd ideas will surface as desperation begins to set in. Moreover, such odd ideas are especially likely to come from politicians who hanker after a salvageable legacy. As such, one should not be surprised at the recent proposal by Governor Schwarzenegger to move 2,000 illegal immigrants within California’s prison population to hypothetical United States prisons located in Mexico, freeing up funds previous allocated for law enforcement and higher education. This is a proposal intended to simultaneously cut the budget, throw a bone to the anti-illegal immigration lobby, and try and soothe the fires of higher education.

Unfortunately, like many of Schwarzenegger’s previous initiatives, the proposed idea suffers from several flaws. According to the Associated Press, Schwarzenegger made the following clarifying remarks while introducing the plan:

“Think about it — if California gives Mexico the money – not ‘Hey, you take care of them, these are your citizens’, no, not at all – we pay them to build the prison down in Mexico. And then we have those undocumented immigrants down there in prison. It would half the costs to build the prison and run the prison. We could save a billion dollars right there that could go into higher education.”

There is a whole laundry list of problems associated with this idea. The first, and most obvious, is the question of the legal status which these inmates would enjoy. While it is true that the United States has a history of housing prisoners overseas (most obviously, in facilities like Guantanamo Bay), Schwarzenegger’s proposed Mexican facility would mark the first civilian prison built on foreign soil. That is, unlike Guantanamo and its sister prisons, Schwarzenegger’s proposed prison would be built to accommodate people who have committed criminal acts under U.S. Law, rather than criminal figures with more ambiguous legal statuses, such as unlawful combatants.

One could make the claim that, given the illegal status of the hypothetical inmates, the questions of Constitutional detainment are irrelevant. To sustain this argument, one would have to ignore the plain language of the 14th amendment, which explicitly states that no person (irrespective of their legal status) shall be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law,” and would also have to argue that illegal immigration constitutes an act equivalent to terrorism. At the very least, the question of due process of law is unresolved in the case of this prison, to say nothing of the terrorism claim, and even if the Supreme Court rules in California’s favor, this is hardly the time for costly Constitutional lawsuits, especially considering that one is already in progress.

But more importantly, there are two rather obvious budgetary questions associated with the proposed plan. First, it is not clear why the money that would be “saved” from this proposal should automatically go towards higher education, rather than saved until such a time as California’s budget is solvent again. As already documented on this site, many of the current fiscal problems with California’s system of higher education spring from mismanagement and waste rather than a genuine crisis of funding. Moreover, with the student protests now comfortably in the past, it is not clear what political incentive Schwarzenegger has to confront this issue.

But finally, and perhaps most obviously, one has to ask why Schwarzenegger would bother going to the trouble of housing these prisoners in California prisons, Mexican-built or not, rather than simply sending them back to Mexico. The Mexican Government is not known for its legal leniency, and spending public money on housing illegal immigrants is believed by many to be politically unpalatable and distinctly counterintuitive.

This is not to say that Schwarzenegger didn’t have any good ideas – he did propose a reformation of the prison system which would permit private entities to compete with the already bloated California government in providing space/manpower for criminal imprisonment. However, to find this rare gem of market-based cleverness, one first has to saw off the bars of forced moderation.