GADSDEN, AL (WAFF) - A big national problem means big money for Alabama, but an unexpected turn of events has the area scrambling for ways to save dozens of jobs and replace millions of dollars tied to illegal immigration.
Sheriff's offices could be forced to cut dozens of employees and pull deputies off the streets because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service cut out early on its contract with the Etowah County Sheriff's Office.
They stand to lose hundreds of illegal immigrant inmates from the jail. If they can't re-fill the jail beds with a new deal, the financial ramifications will be in the millions.
The illegal immigration debate often focuses on how taxpayers foot the bills, and how illegal immigrants take away jobs from American citizens. For Etowah county, illegal immigration helps pay bills, and it creates jobs because illegal immigrants are held in the jail.
"These are some dangerous folks. We have everything from murderers, to rapists, to robbery, down to DUI's," said Sheriff Todd Entrekin.
Entrekin's office and the Etowah County Commission split the proceeds. On average, the jail holds 350 illegal immigrants and ICE pays $40 a day for each. That adds up to $14,000 a week, more than $5 million a year.
The contract was set through 2014, but less than three weeks before Christmas, ICE told the county it was pulling all of the detainees out and moving them to an Atlanta facility.
"It's devastating to this county to lose 41 jobs," said Entrekin. "You would lose six deputies out of patrol division right off the bat."
County Commission President Tim Choate and the sheriff got on a plane and met with Alabama lawmakers in the nation's capitol that night.
"This can spill over on our side of the street also," said Choate. "This goes in our general fund. Jobs are paid out of this."
They were able to delay the pullout, but ICE still plans to remove the detainees. Doctor Scott Hassell, the Chief Deputy of Detention, says the sudden and unexpected turn leaves some major holes to fill.
"If they left today, they leave us with 350 empty beds and leave us with $2 million in debt that we have to pay off between now and 2013," said Dr. Hassell.
After ICE provided nearly $9 million in cap funds to build the Etowah County Jail, the sheriff's office, counting on a continued money stream, borrowed money for jail expansion, including progressive rehabilitation programs and female inmate housing.
If the feds remove the detainees from the jail, the financial hit would go beyond the county budget. The chamber of commerce estimates the local economy would lose $15 million a year.
At first, ICE planned to move the detainees out in March and they wanted the county to comply with its side of the contract, keeping jail beds available for the feds for two and a half more years.
Alabama's lawmakers convinced ICE to wait until the end of June and to let the county out of the contract.
Congressman Robert Aderholt says it gives the sheriff's office time to fill the beds with new deals and to save jobs.
"With this agreement to be let out of their contract, that will open up the beds to get prisoners from other parts of the state and from the New Orleans district office," said Aderholt.
Dr. Hassell says he's not angry over the pull out. He says the relationship with ICE has helped enhance the jail into a top-notch facility.
"On the very last day that we house immigration detainees, we're going to do our very best to an excellent job and maintain that tradition of service," said Dr. Hassell. "I think we can show folks better than we can tell them."