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An investigation into the true costs of illegal immigration



You’d have to have been living under a rock—or without a television, computer, or some other news-gathering apparatus—over the past year to have missed the hailstorm of political rhetoric regarding the costs of illegal immigration to California’s and the nation’s economies.

For those of you hermit types, here’s just a snippet of the news bites floating around the virtual universe:

First, there was gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner. The Palo Alto businessman ended up losing the Republican nomination to former eBay mogul Meg Whitman by about 40 percent of the vote, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t put up one heckuva fight. A cornerstone of Poizner’s campaign was his tough stance on illegal immigration, which he conveyed to voters through a barrage of television ads asking the (rhetorical) question, “Who has the courage and values to stand up to illegal immigration? Not liberal Meg Whitman.”

He followed that commercial with dozens of op-ed pieces claiming illegal aliens cost taxpayers and the state tens of billions of dollars each year.

Democrats weren’t afraid to wax poetic on the subject, either, but usually from the opposite direction. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa went on record saying, “In California, I think there’s a real sense that these immigrants provide a great deal to the economic might of the state.” Villaraigosa also supported the Los Angeles City Council’s decision to boycott Arizona in response to the state’s bill allowing law enforcement agents to question residents about their legal status.

Locally, some candidates made immigration a talking point in their campaigns.

Matt Kokkonen, Republican candidate for the 33rd District Assembly nomination, told New Times, “Getting control of our border and stopping benefits to illegal immigrants would save [the state] another $11 billion.”

Katcho Achadjian, Kokkonen’s opponent and the ultimate victor of the race, also estimated those net savings at about $10 billion.

“As a legal immigrant myself, I find it offensive that millions of people have jumped that line, ignoring legal requirements to get into this great country of ours,” he added.

These statements got those of us at the New Times wondering: Exactly what are the costs of illegal immigration to the Central Coast—and the state, for that matter? And where are politicians and other people getting their numbers?

With those questions in mind, the New Times embarked on an investigation of Sherlockian proportions.


On the case

Just like the Good Gumshoe himself, we decided to start our investigation at the source—of the funds, that is.

Here’s what county and city officials had to say about the costs accrued by their respective departments and organizations as a result of illegal immigration:

“It turns out we really just don’t have the data on undocumented people because they don’t get benefits,” said Tracy Buckingham, assistant director of San Luis Obispo County Social Services.

“The city of Santa Maria does not compile statistics about the cost of undocumented residents,” spokesman Mark Van de Kamp said in a statement. “City police officers do ask the immigration status of arrestees booked into county jail, but it’s up to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to determine who’s undocumented and subject to immigration holds and deportation.”

According to SLO County Administrator Jim Grant, the county collects no data on illegal immigrants and therefore has little data on cost estimates. The county is reimbursed for the costs of detaining and processing such individuals he said. In the 2005 fiscal year, for example, the county received about $200,000 in reimbursement from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. Last fiscal year the county received about $249,000 and Grant said it has budgeted to ask for about $275,000 this year.

SLO Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn said the department doesn’t track illegal immigrants.

“Normally we don’t track anything we’re not required to track,” he said. “And that’s just a budget issue.”

What about SLO County Auditor-Controller Gere Sibbach? Does he have any idea how many illegal immigrants are in the county or how much it costs the average legal resident?

“No I don’t,” he said. “I can’t think of anything.”

Likewise, Santa Maria Police Department spokesman Lt. Rico Flores said the department doesn’t compile the costs of dealing with illegal immigrants.

“The department won’t do it,” he said. “It would take way too much manpower.”

To get that kind of information, he said, one would have to look at each individual issue. Some of the examples he gave included arrests made at DUI checkpoints, and tows and impounds made as a result of hit-and-run accidents.

“And those are just on the traffic side,” he added.

Some illegal immigrants are tracked once in jail. Once a county sheriff’s department finds out a person is in the country illegally, an employee contacts ICE, which, in turn, has 24 hours to detain and transport the individual. If ICE doesn’t respond and the person didn’t commit a serious crime, he or she is released.

The SLO County Sheriff’s Department, for example, referred 438 jail inmates to ICE in 2008-09 and 558 the following fiscal year ending May 10.

Santa Barbara County spokesman William Boyer said, “We don’t have one person who monitors the costs of illegal immigration. Many of our departments are prevented from even asking a person’s immigration or legal status.”

According to Santa Barbara County Director of Social Services Kathy Gallagher, “These are federal and state costs, no county funds are paid. We have about 1,000 of these cases a year,” she explained in the e-mail. “For child abuse and elder abuse investigations, we are required to respond regardless of immigration status, but if a child must go into foster care and the child is undocumented, s/he is not eligible [for] federal or state funding.”

Buckingham, of SLO County Social Services, argued that illegal immigrants, in fact, don’t draw any public money because they can’t draw any services: non-emergency medical care, welfare, and food stamps, for example.

“I just think that it’s really a misnomer when people think that they’re getting all these benefits,” she said. “They’re really not.”

Mike Blank, directing attorney of the California Rural Legal Assitance office in San Luis Obispo agreed.

“Logic dictates that undocumenteds are paying out more in taxes than they receive in benefits from the government,” Blank said. “Undocumented workers here pay sales tax, property tax through their landlord, gasoline tax. They also have Social Security, state disability, and unemployment deducted from their checks; however, they are only entitled to emergency medical [care]. Some experts believe that undocumenteds are going to save the Social Security system for the baby boomers because they are paying into the Social Security system but they cannot take out of it.”

And, of course, we couldn’t forget hospitals or schools.

Another problem: It’s illegal for a hospital to ask a patient about his or her citizenship, said Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center spokesman Ron Yukelson.

“We’re prohibited from asking them [about] their immigration status,” he said.

Maggie White, spokesperson for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said in an e-mail, “We don’t ask anyone their status. That’s not a function of educational institutions. There is no way to track the financial information you’re looking for in our district.”

Lastly, the communications department at Marian Medical Center sent a statement that said all hospitals participating in Medicare programs, including Marian, must provide care to anyone who seeks treatment in an emergency room, regardless of his or her “citizenship, legal status, or ability to pay.” Additionally, the hospital isn’t required to report its patients’ immigration status, nor can it disclose any of its patients’ personal information.

Jurors, and agents, and tanks! Oh my!

Our investigation yielded a few patterns. Answers like, “There’s no way to track that” and “I honestly don’t know” were popular, as were references to grand jury reports and ICE.

In its report Effects of Immigration in Santa Barbara County: A Balanced Assessment, the 2006-07 Grand Jury admitted it had a difficult time gathering data about the cost of illegal immigration.

“One major problem is the uncertainty about the size of the illegal population. Credible figures range from 25,000 to 75,000, and many of these individuals may not be counted in the census surveys,” the report said.

For example, the census doesn’t directly ask if a person is in the country illegally, but does ask people if they are foreign-born or naturalized citizens.

“The easy availability of forged documents, the absence of strict requirements to verify citizenship status, and the failure to follow through when illegal activity is probable create considerable uncertainty about the size of the problem caused by immigrants illegally in the county,” the report continued.

The report looked into a vast range of living costs for immigrants in general, including housing, health care and social services, and education. It also looked at costs associated with crime, a subject that spawned another report called Illegal Immigration and the Detention System: A Growing Concern.

The only topics with actual numbers, however, were the cost of birthing services in public clinics (approximately $4 million per year), and the Healthy Kids program, a Santa Barbara County program that provides insurance to local children at a cost of about $1 million per year. The program doesn’t require people to divulge their citizenship status. The report also found that from 2005 to 2006, illegal immigrants comprised 10 to 20 percent of the county’s incarcerated population, generating costs of anywhere from $277,000 to $477,000.

With that information deposited securely under our tweed deerstalker caps, we turned to ICE, the division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security responsible for investigating illegal immigration cases and enforcing deportations.

Representatives with ICE referred us to a Department of Homeland Security report estimating illegal immigrant populations for 2009 (approximately 10.8 million people, 63 percent of whom entered the United States before 2000).

When asked about information regarding costs, ICE spokesperson Lori Haley said, “We aren’t economists or an advocacy organization. It’s our job to enforce the law.”

Then she suggested speaking to some immigration think tanks.

We started with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), one of the more conservative think tanks out there.

Under the “Immigration Facts” section of FAIR’s website, there was a link for state and local data. For the most part, the data focused on foreign-born population (approximately 22,000 as of 2000 in SLO County and 85,000 in Santa Barbara County for the same year) and legal immigration. There was no mention of illegal immigrants, except for references to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which created a legal path to citizenship and made hiring illegal immigrants against the law.

Then we found it: The 2004 FAIR-researched report The Costs of Illegal Immigration to California.

“Analysis of the latest Census data indicates that California’s illegal immigrant population is costing the state’s taxpayers more than $10.5 billion per year for education, medical care, and incarceration,” the first line of the report reads. “Even if the estimated tax contributions of illegal immigrant workers are subtracted, net outlays still amount to nearly $9 billion per year. The annual fiscal burden from those three areas of state expenditures amounts to about $1,183 per household headed by a native-born resident.”

As a reference, FAIR used a 1994 study conducted by the Urban Institute.

“[The study] provides a useful baseline for comparison 10 years later,” FAIR said in its report. “Other studies have been conducted in the interim, showing trends that support the conclusions of this report.”

The report’s end notes list almost 40 references overall, including the U.S. General Accounting Office, the Center for Immigration Studies, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

FAIR analyzed what it called the three largest cost areas associated with illegal immigration: education, health care, and incarceration.

But, the report continued, “The fiscal costs of illegal immigration do not end with these three major cost areas. The total costs of illegal immigration to the state’s taxpayers would be considerably higher if other cost areas such as special English instruction, school feeding programs, or welfare benefits for American workers displaced by illegal alien workers were added into the equation.”

The investigation finally seemed to be on an upswing in terms of data, but then we got a call back from Santa Barbara County nonprofit P.U.E.B.L.O. (People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership through Organizing).

“There are many reports that confirm immigrants contribute to the economy,” said P.U.E.B.L.O. Executive Director Belen Seara, referring directly to studies from the Immigration Policy Center and the University of Southern California.

The Immigration Policy Center reported via the Texas-based Perryman Group, “If all unauthorized immigrants were removed from California, the state would lose $164.2 billion in expenditures, $72.9 billion in economic output, and approximately 717,000 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time.”

These figures are based in part on income and sales tax revenues and Social Security revenues.

The USC report, The Economic Benefits of Immigrant Authorization in California, found California “lost out on the multiplied impacts” of potential income and spending of underpaid illegal immigrants. The report estimated a total potential gain of $3.25 billion annually from immigrant authorization.

“The loss in wages not only impacts the consumption and spending power of unauthorized immigrant workers and the state, but also represents a loss in income and sales taxes that local, state, and federal governments are unable to capture,” the report said, “including $310 million in income taxes for the state and $1.4 billion for the federal government last year [2009].”

Granting legal status for unauthorized immigrants, according to the report, would also “strengthen our national social safety net and could potentially increase Social Security tax revenue by $6 to $7 billion and Medicare tax revenue collected by $1.5 billion.”

Confused yet? So were we.

Overwhelmed by the onslaught of conflicting data, we dialed a Hail Mary call into the Public Policy Institute of California. (The nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank’s motto is “Informing and improving public policy through independent, objective, nonpartisan research,” so we figured it could give us a relatively unbiased answer.)

Here’s what head immigration researcher Hans Johnson had to say about the back-and-forth rhetoric on the subject: “In the end, the truth is there are no reliable studies of the costs and benefits [of illegal immigration] to Californians. It’s very hard to identify illegal immigrants, so people have to make assumptions on who they are, where they work, and the taxes they pay.”

Johnson said even those top three cost brackets—incarceration, healthcare, and education—are hard to quantify.

Just as New Times discovered, many law enforcement agencies only keep partial data on incarcerated illegal immigrants because those individuals are usually turned over to ICE.

Plus, Johnson said, researchers have to consider all technically illegal immigrants in detention centers, such as people with legal visas who commit felonies and are therefore deportable.

Education, healthcare, and social services costs are equally uncertain.

“On the one hand, if educating the children of illegal immigrants is included in the equation, they and their children almost certainly constitute a substantial drain on public funds,” Johnson wrote in a 2006 report on illegal immigration. “Nevertheless, most children of illegal immigrants were born in the United States, are U.S. citizens, and are thus entitled to be educated in the public schools.”

That economic drain is more a result of citizens not paying enough taxes on education overall, he told New Times.

As for health and social services, Johnson said illegal immigrants typically aren’t eligible for most services and programs. When immigrants use the services they qualify for—i.e. prenatal care and limited health insurance—it’s in lower rates than how they’re represented in the population.

“I really haven’t seen anyone measure it accurately,” he concluded.

So, there you have it. No one seems to know the true cost of illegal immigration. Of course, there are plenty of answers out there, but those answers change depending on whom and, apparently, when you ask.

Adds Johnson: “There is a history in the United States that when economic times get bad there’s rising concern about the impacts of illegal immigration. It happened with Operation Wetback and the Chinese Exclusion Act.”

As you can see, our dear readers, the topic is anything but elementary.

News Editor Amy Asman writes for New Times’ sister paper the Santa Maria Sun. She can be reached at [email protected]. New Times Staff Writer Colin Rigley contributed to this story.


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