Clearing Out Bad Data on Illegal Immigrants

Michael Hiltzik, LAT

December 22, 2003

The California approach to budget deficits has always possessed a large component of denial denial of basic math, of how our devotion to specific spending programs contradicts our aversion to spending in general, of how ballot-box mandates limit our ability to reduce the size of government.

Then there's the denial implicit in avoiding discussion of one ostensible major drain on the state budget: the cost of illegal immigration. So I've decided to try to figure out how big a drain that really is.

It's not surprising that this issue largely stayed off the radar screen during the recent election, except for attacks on the law granting illegal residents the right to a state driver's license. Ever since the fight over Proposition 187, discussion of illegal immigration has been rendered inappropriate for polite company.

But that may not stay the case for long. As reported in The Times on Saturday, the folks who wrote Proposition 187 a decade ago are gathering signatures for a new initiative, aiming once again to bar illegal immigrants from a broad array of public services.

Plainly, this is an issue that will not go away quietly. One wishes the debate could be kept on a rational plane, but it's more often conducted on the fringes.

Some people argue that our borders should be wide open and that talk of limiting Mexican immigration is racist at heart. Then there are those who argue that illegal immigration (and, often, its legal form) is a scourge that needs a firm solution, such as the proposal recently e-mailed to me by a reader: "Put a bounty on them. Shoot them as they cross, men, women, children, who cares."

With passions running so high, it's not surprising that people contrive their own statistics to back up their positions. I've heard supposed experts refer to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants entering California every year, as well as to illegal immigration accounting for the entirety of the California budget crisis.

"California is being bankrupted by cheap immigrant labor," Dan Stein, executive director of a Washington group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, wrote this summer in the San Jose Mercury News.

The only thing this proves is that bad data will fill any vacuum. But it also obscures that hard numbers are readily available, if only one seeks them out.

To begin with, how many people are we talking about? The most credible estimate comes from a January 2003 report by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, based on the 2000 census. The report found that California was home to 2.2 million illegal immigrants, or about a third of all those in the country.

That figure represents a gain of 732,000 from 1990. Therefore, the agency (which is now known as the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) pegged the rate of illegal arrivals into California at an average of about 73,200 annually.

What do they cost?

Most state spending on services to undocumented immigrants falls into four broad categories: health care, welfare, criminal justice and education.

Under state law, undocumented workers are eligible under Medi-Cal only for emergency care, which includes labor and delivery services. The legislative analyst's office, a nonpartisan state agency, estimated this cost at $1.1 billion for fiscal 2002-03 (not all of which was incurred by illegal immigrants). As a ballpark estimate, let's say $1 billion for health care at the state level goes to the undocumented.

At the same time, illegal immigrants are ineligible for state social service programs, so the cost of welfare should be zero. But things are more complicated than that. U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants who are, of course, American citizens are eligible for welfare programs such as CalWorks, which assists families with kids.

The LAO estimated there were 84,000 cases of citizen children of illegal immigrants in the CalWorks system in 2000-01, with an average of 2.2 children per case. Considering the maximum grant of $568 a month for a two-child family, that would work out to $573 million for the year.

Two caveats, however. One is that these children are not themselves illegal immigrants. It can be argued that they wouldn't have been born in the U.S. if not for their parents' illegal crossing, but this is a definitional issue that I leave up to the advocates on both sides to fight out.

The other caveat is that CalWorks is a joint state-federal program. The state is eligible for $3.7 billion a year in federal aid, but it must spend $2.7 billion of its own to receive the funds. This formula means that even if the immigrants' offspring were to be somehow cut off, that wouldn't result in any savings to the state budget.

In any event, says Todd Bland of the LAO, CalWorks' spending has not increased in at least five years, despite the growing number of immigrants. "We've been spending at the same level since the Wilson administration," he said, "and less than in earlier years."

In criminal justice, the big expense comes from the prison system. Budget analysts say the state spends about $550 million a year on jailing and supervising the parole of those in the U.S. illegally. But it gets $150 million in federal reimbursements, for a net cost of $400 million.

The largest chunk of state spending on illegal immigrants goes to education. The LAO placed the proportion of California's 6.2 million K-12 pupils who are illegal immigrants at 7%, or roughly 430,000 children. Assuming these kids receive a similar level of service as others, that's about $6,000 annually per child, or $2.6 billion a year in total.

It's occasionally argued that such children actually cost more than the average because they tend to enter the system as educationally disadvantaged and non-English-speaking and thus require more assistance.

But the LAO believes that such students may actually cost less than the average. Thanks to seniority preferences in many school districts, it says, teachers of such children are more likely to lack credentials and be relatively inexperienced that is, cheaper.

Besides, it's misleading to look at education spending only from the cost side of the ledger. It's also an investment.

The only way to ensure that illegal workers become productive members of society is to educate them. In other words, this spending is offset by long-term benefits. (It's also not up to the state; a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forbade states to bar illegal immigrants from public schools. Even the backers of the new ballot measure aimed at denying services to illegal immigrants say they won't try to toss children out of public schools.)

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out that education is the best predictor of income and thus of benefit and cost," said UC Davis economist Philip L. Martin, an expert on rural immigrants.

He cites studies that say an arriving immigrant with at least a high school education will pay an average $89,000 more in taxes and other revenues than he or she costs in services. Those with less than a high-school education, however, put such a demand on public services that their large negative value persists through their children's and grandchildren's generations.

So here's the bottom line: The total the state spends on illegal immigrants is no more than $4.6 billion a year, with CalWorks being a judgment call. This is a substantial amount, but clearly not enough to account for all of the state's budget gap, which is running $8 billion to $12 billion annually.

It's reasonable to argue that the federal government should pick up more of these costs. Uncle Sam should also enforce the immigration laws more effectively. Yet that would mean prosecuting those who hire undocumented workers, including farmers, building contractors and Southland homeowners with tended lawns and gardens. Given all the Californians with a direct and indirect interest in the availability of an illicit labor force, no wonder the showpiece of the enforcement effort is a single porous roadblock 35 miles north of San Diego on Interstate 5.

Above all, it's plain that solving the illegal immigration problem won't solve the state's budget woes. Even if the waving of a magic wand could make undocumented workers go away, or if the federal government delivered a magic reimbursement of $4 billion a year, the state would still have to face this reality: As long as its legal residents continue insisting on both higher spending and lower taxes, the budget crisis will stay with us.