Friday, April 15, 2011

Counting the Cost of Illegal Immigration

We liked this piece by the San Diego Union Tribune's Michael Gardner, published on HealthyCal.org. Gardner discusses an issue that's being somewhat overlooked in all the discussions of tax extensions, pension liabilities, and nervous government employees: the impact of illegal immigrants on California's budget deficit. In other words, could billions spent on services "be put to work cutting the deficit, paying for vital programs and keeping tax increases at bay" if California stopped providing education and social services to illegal immigrants and immediately deported convicted illegals out of state prisons?

Welcome to California.
Of course, blocking services to illegal immigrants is far easier said than done. After numerous court rulings, states are obligating to provide schooling to any child, regardless of citizenship, and illegals are currently entitled to free emergency medical care, cash assistance benefits, and other social services if their children are citizens. And, according to Gardner, "the federal government has been pretty stingy when it comes to reimbursing states for the rising tab". Numerous studies have argued, of course, that illegal immigrants contribute more to California's economy than they take out in transfer payments. Unfortunately, since these studies generally come from egghead academics, they tend to focus on the sales and payroll taxes that illegals pay to the government rather than on the value they create in the U.S. We prefer to ask a different question: what is the illegal-immigrant share of a problem created by the state?

According to the Legislative Analyst's office, data from 2008-2009 suggest that California spends $4.2 billion on services for illegal immigrants each year. The cost of schooling the estimated 270,000 children of illegals is $1.9 billion. The costs of incarcerating illegal convicts is $1 billion, only $100 million of which is reimbursed by the federal government. The California Department of Corrections reports about 18,300 “deportable felons” in state prisons, each costing an average of $44,563 a year. Medical services provided to illegals totaled $775 million, primarily in state-reimbursed emergency care at hospitals. According to Gardner, "lawmakers could save money by deleting some services, such as cervical and breast cancer screening. However, the biggest expense – baby deliveries – is legally required regardless of the mother’s status." Then there's cash assistance: via the counties, the state provides $345 per child to about 230,000 children of parents not legally living in the U.S. California's total bill for doing this is $670 million. Finally, while illegal immigrants can't qualify for college aid, they can claim in-state tuition if they've lived here for at least three years and have a California high school diploma.

To be clear, we're hardly what you'd call rabid nationalists, and we have no problem with anyone who relocates to another country to pursue a better life for themselves and the people they love. It also goes without saying that we're sympathetic to property owners in border areas, who can tell stories about violent encounters with groups crossing the border that would turn your hair white. We just think illegal immigrants are a convenient scapegoat. Is it unfair to ask taxpaying Californians to pay for the social services and incarceration of illegal residents? Of course. But not because of a line in the sand that says they're illegal; it's unfair because confiscating anyone's money and give it to someone who's done nothing to earn it is horribly wrong. We don't really care if the recipients are immigrants or native-born Californians. The real problem is that social service spending is just another way the government uses free money to set different groups of citizens against one another. And we're not optimistic that California will get its illegal immigration problem under control if it can't get its social spending problem under control first.

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