An attempt in Scott County to tally up the price of illegal immigrants who break the law is being both praised and panned.

In response to inquiries from two county commissioners who face reelection challenges this year, County Attorney Pat Ciliberto told the County Board not long ago that it costs a fortune.

University of Minnesota immigration expert Katherine Fennelly said the county's top prosecutor is "creating lots of smoke where there's no fire."

The electoral opponent of one of the two commissioners, however, said he's happy the problem is getting attention. "I think it's a good issue," said former Sheriff Dave Menden, who's challenging Shakopee-based Commissioner Jerry Hennen. "It really, really bugs me."

Ciliberto told the board that the number of people in jail who get holds placed on them by federal immigration authorities as possible illegal immigrants has gradually been rising. It was just seven in 2006, but it rose to 17, to 46 and to 90 in the three years after that.

Considering the total cost of the jail and the total number of inmates, he said, that means the cost to taxpayers of those people being held was $843,570 "and one cent." The feds do reimburse counties for a portion of their costs, he said, but in three years the total has been about $61,000. "We are not recouping anywhere near our cost."

Fennelly said the likely reason for those increasing numbers needs to be clear.

"Under President Obama, there's been a dramatic increase in holds in local jails," she said. "Immigrants overall are less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants -- that's been demonstrated over and over again. And people here illegally take special care to keep their nose clean for fear of being sent home."

Back in the day, Menden said, the feds often shrugged their shoulders. "You'd try calling immigration, but they'd spent their allotment for the year."

County Administrator Gary Shelton, who came up through jail administration, said he isn't faulting the county attorney for citing the number he was given by the Sheriff's Office -- a number he called "the only true and verifiable number available."

But he added: "Some of the fixed costs would remain with or without the presence of these individuals in the jail."

That is, the jail and its major cost -- staffing -- have to be paid for regardless of whether any illegal immigrants turn up.

Still, he added, with the number of holds rising from just a handful to nearly 100, they "drive enough days and bed space that it would not be accurate to merely assess to them the nominal costs associated with food, clothing, etc., as their numbers would drive staffing costs as well -- but it would take considerable analysis to determine exactly what that number would be."

The flap comes against a backdrop of rising numbers of Hispanic immigrants in Scott County. Of the 10 Minnesota counties with Hispanic populations large enough to have recent U.S. Census estimates of their size, Scott ranks second in the rate of growth. The county's numbers are reckoned to have more than doubled, from about 2,400 to nearly 5,000.

While both figures are small compared to some metro counties -- neighboring Dakota is put at over 17,000 -- it's been shown, Fennelly said, that places with small numbers are acutely conscious of fast growth when it does occur, and tensions do rise.

But county officials need to take care in stoking ill feeling, she said. "Woe be to counties who lose large numbers of Latinos, Asians or others by taking strong stances on things like 'English First' or other issues. There will be significant consequences," as businesses learn that the cheap labor was actually helpful.

In an e-mail, Ciliberto said he is not impressed by the argument that Scott County home buyers, for instance, benefit from cheap construction workers. "The out-of-work American construction worker would say no, I assume, but then that would be my assumption and that's not objective."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023