SEATTLE - To save money, Gov. Chris Gregoire wants illegal aliens serving time in state prisons deported.

Her proposal estimates that deporting illegal aliens - who are serving or would serve time for drug or property crime convictions - will save the state more than $9 million in the next two-year budget.

The state faces a $5.7 billion budget deficit over the next 2 1/2 years, and Gregoire has proposed a no new-taxes budget proposal laden with cuts, including about $200 million from the Department of Corrections, the attorney general's office, and other public safety programs.

The deportation proposal is modeled after a program in Arizona that has saved the state more than $18.5 million since 2005, said Eldon Vail, secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections.

"It's not an ideal choice, if revenue was there, I'd say have them do their time," Vail said. "Is justice better served? It's a tough question to wrestle with when you don't have resources."

The proposal would call for the state to come to an agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which would carry out the deportations. In Washington, there are about 350 prisoners who would be eligible to be transferred to ICE. On average, it costs the state $90 a day to imprison an inmate, Vail said.

It also includes allowing state workers to act as immigration agents in some instances, assisting ICE in processing illegal aliens under a version of the so-called 287(g) agreements, which are contentious among immigrant advocates.

"Generally, we are always concerned with any attempt by local, state officials to try to enforce immigration law," said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a legal aid organization for immigrants.

"It's a field of law that's very complex. In our experience, any time local, state agencies get involved, it leads to problems," Baron said.

Baron said people, even with criminal convictions, can still be eligible for citizenship under U.S. law in some cases, and others can qualify for asylum.

Gregoire's proposal represents a policy shift toward illegal immigrants from a state that had largely stayed away from immigration enforcement. Washington, with its large agricultural industry, attracts a large number of undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico.

"We're not Arizona," said state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. "Not everybody can be rehabilitated, but I know no one deserves to be mistreated."

Prentice, who chairs the Ways and Means committee and writes the Senate's budget proposal, said she will oppose the measure. The veteran lawmaker is also worried other programs that provide humanitarian aid to illegal immigrant women and their children may be proposed to be cut.

"Immigrants are a vulnerable group politically, that face the brunt of difficult budget situations," Baron said. "I understand this is to preserve state resources, but we're often talking about people's lives."

Gregoire's proposal would need approval from state lawmakers to be enacted, said Chad Lewis, Department of Corrections spokesman.

Washington would join Arizona and New York in having similar programs. Between 1995 and 2007, New York has saved an estimated $141 million by releasing more than 1,950 illegal aliens inmates to federal hands, according to the New York Department of Correctional Services.

Currently in Washington, immigration agents can comb local jails for illegal aliens. Once federal agents identify an illegal alien in jail, a hold is placed on the person and the federal government waits until the local sentence is served before deportation procedures begin.

Called the Criminal Alien Program, ICE says the program helps increase deportations of criminals and maintains keeping its public safety promise. More than 3,000 illegal aliens removed by ICE between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, had prior criminal convictions - however not all aliens with criminal records came from the jail canvassing program.

In Arizona, the joint agreement between ICE and the state is considered a success by officials.

"The benefit to the state of Arizona is obviously - bed space," said Vincent Picard, ICE spokesman in Phoenix. "It's an opportunity for us to share resources and operate more efficiently."

Vail said that in Arizona, the state saved 210 days of imprisonment costs per inmate with the number of people it transferred to federal authorities.

Drug and property convictions include theft and drug possession, nonviolent crimes. Vail said the state would not release violent criminals.

"We've looked at a lot of ideas we wouldn't normally pursue. This is one where it's been done successfully," Vail said.

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