Blog Archive

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What are the costs and benefits of illegal immigrants in the U.S.?

It's hard to say. Most Idaho agencies have no way of knowing how many they serve.
The Idaho Statesman

In the wake of an Arizona law allowing police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, lawmakers in many states, including Idaho, are looking more closely at illegal immigration - even with that Arizona law recently put on hold by a judge.

But quantifiable data is hard to find, and most of the numbers bandied about are based on research by advocacy groups on either side of the debate. That makes it difficult to know both the costs of illegal workers and the benefits of a low-cost, mobile work force.

A Statesman survey of several Treasure Valley institutions shows that many of them - hospitals, school districts, universities and state agencies - have no mechanism to track the costs and benefits of undocumented workers.

This is not an issue the Idaho controller's office has studied, but many of these costs are difficult to quantify, said Chief Deputy Dan Goicoechea.

Even knowing how many illegal immigrants live in Idaho is nearly impossible.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that in 2008 between 25,000 and 40,000 illegal immigrants lived in Idaho - among the lowest in the nation. But the key word is "estimated."

"I challenge anyone to give us the data on the undocumented. We just don't know," said Margie Gonzales, executive director of the Idaho Hispanic Commission.

Complicating the statistics is the Constitution, which grants citizenship to any child born in the United States, including the offspring of illegal immigrants.

Though public schools are often cited among the costs of illegal immigration, they are constitutionally bound to educate all students.

Since federal law prohibits public schools from asking students about their immigration status, legal and illegal immigrant students often are put into the same statistical category: English-language learners.

Federal law also requires hospitals to treat patients who come to emergency rooms, regardless of their ability to pay, so local officials say they don't have reliable numbers on the costs.

Sometimes those payments come from county indigent services offices, which pay medical bills of county residents who show they can't afford them. About $18 million to $20 million per year is spent statewide in indigent funds, with another about $26 million to $30 million from the state catastrophic funds, which help the counties cover the most expensive bills, said Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties.

"The illegal immigrant portion of this, we don't know," he said.

A Senate bill passed in 2009 cleared the way for county offices to begin collecting data on immigration status, Chadwick said. But that will not affect the availability of funds, he said. Idaho law bases eligibility on a 30-day residency in the state, not on status.

"You're not entitled to services if you're not a resident of Idaho," Chadwick said. "I haven't seen it come into play for illegal immigrants."

Taxpayers also pay to send illegal immigrants home. A weekly, and sometimes twice-weekly, deportation flight leaves Twin Falls, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to give a specific number, said spokeswoman Lorie Dankers.

"People might come from other cities, not just Twin Falls," she said. "It's one of those situations where it costs what it costs. I don't know if we can quantify the cost."

The issue isn't going away.

The Legislature's most outspoken critic of illegal immigration, GOP Sen. Mike Jorgensen of Hayden, was defeated in the primary, but others have vowed to take up the charge.

"If the feds won't do it, states are saying, 'We're going to have to do it,' " Idaho state Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, told the Associated Press recently.