It's Time to Deal With the High Cost of Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on February 16, 1995

The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 16, 1995

Monday's dismissal of California's lawsuit for reimbursement of the costs of illegal immigration does not have to be a setback for immigration reform. But it does point to the need for action from Washington to grapple with the real problem, which is not what illegal immigration costs, but the fact that there is so much of it.

Now, the costs of illegal immigration, in terms of government expenditures for education, criminal justice and emergency medical care for illegal immigrants, are significant.

Although the results of studies vary widely, all point to the high price states and localities pay for illegal immigration. For example:

The Center for Immigration Studies conducted a study of the fiscal impact of illegal immigration several years ago, and estimated that illegal immigrants consumed $5.5 billion in 13 major federal and state programs in 1990.

Gov. Pete Wilson's Office of Planning and Research estimated that the net cost to California of providing government services to illegal immigrants would be $2.7 billion during this fiscal year.

The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank which has consistently underestimated the size and cost of illegal immigration, concluded that undocumented aliens cost California more than $1.8 billion in 1993.

The fact that the states must bear the cost of federal failure turns illegal immigration, in effect, into one of the largest unfunded mandates.

Conventional unfunded mandates, covering environmental, occupational health and safety and other matters cost states hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the cumulative cost to states of these programs (not including illegal immigration) from 1983 to 1990 is at least $8.9 billion.

At the local level, the National Association of Counties, has reported that Fresno County, to pick just one example, spent more than $6 million in 1993 on just five unfunded federal requirements.

The lawsuits filed by California and other states have helped highlight the magnitude of illegal immigration as an unfunded mandate and may be helping to prod the federal government into action.

But for states and localities to concentrate attention on the costs of illegal immigration is potentially counterproductive. Unlike conventional unfunded mandates, which may be worthy goals but allocate the costs improperly, illegal immigration happens only because the federal government fails to carry out its law enforcement responsibility.

The administration is touting its request for an additional $1 billion in immigration-related funding for the next fiscal year. However, more than one-third of this new money, some $370 million, is intended to increase reimbursements to the states, in an attempt to "assist the states with the costs of illegal immigration that are a result of failed enforcement policies of the past," according to an administration statement.

And the parties in Washington seem to be engaged in reimbursement one-upmanship, with the Republican-controlled House just last Thursday voting to send states up to $650 million to make up for the costs of imprisoning illegal immigrants, more than twice as much as the administration's budget request.

The fiscal burden placed on states and localities by illegal immigration is enormous. But all the studies and government initiatives on this topic will have been wasted if the result is merely the funneling of more taxpayer money to the states.

Washington is taking some first steps in this direction. Operation Gatekeeper in California and Operation Hold the Line in Texas have achieved the short-term goal of making those border-crossing points less porous for a time - but they have also shown a change in attitude on the part of the Border Patrol, which seems now to be seeking ways to actually secure the border, rather than merely trying to manage the overwhelming flow of illegal crossings.

More needs to be done. About half of the 300,000 or so illegal immigrants permanently settling in our country each year enter legally, but stay after their visas have expired, thus tracking of such visitors and removal of those who overstay their welcome is needed.

And better enforcement of the prohibition of employing illegal immigrants is needed. As uncomfortable as the proposition is to many Americans, some system for electronically verifying a person's eligibility to work is needed if employer sanctions are to work, and illegal immigration brought under control.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.