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New Light on Immigration, New Lift for the State's Case

Study bolsters California's aid request to Washington

May 25, 1997

Immigration is an issue of much emotion, many opinions and few undisputed facts. That's why a highly authoritative report by the National Academy of Sciences--whose bottom line says immigrants are a net economic plus for America--is welcome and significant.

Dozens of experts in economics, demographics and sociology worked for two years to produce the 500-page document, which concludes that for all the challenges that waves of immigrants pose to the nation, the newcomers contribute more to the economy over the long term than they consume in government services in their first years here. The net contribution is pegged at between $1 billion and $10 billion a year. The report also nails down the unevenly spread costs of immigration, providing a solid argument for high-immigration states like California to demand greater federal reimbursement.

Partly because new immigrants tend to earn low wages, the taxes they pay do not initially cover the costs of services like education and medical care. That is true in California, which, along with some other initial-settlement states, must deal with a key inequity: that the wealth immigrants help create is distributed across the national landscape while the fiscal burdens they impose are not. California taxpayers, for instance, pay far more for the schooling, health care and other services that immigrants require than do taxpayers in most other states.

The political question here is one of parity. Immigration and border control are federal responsibilities, after all. Sacramento has sought to make the federal government pay its fair share for immigrant needs. Lawsuits seeking this equity have been filed in recent years, and now, finally, Washington has begun to budge. Federal funds now reimburse California for half the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants who commit crimes while in this country. In the next fiscal year, federal dollars are expected to pay a little more than half the public health care costs for undocumented immigrants.

The big item is education. The California Department of Finance estimates that for fiscal year 1997-98, the cost of educating undocumented immigrant children, kindergarten through high school, will be more than $2 billion. Californians should not have to foot that bill alone. If there is one issue on which the often ideologically fractured California congressional delegation should seek unity, this is it. Only the combined political muscle of the largest congressional delegation can win fuller federal reimbursement.

The academy report does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigration when it concludes that the nation as a whole will eventually benefit. Yet to provide education and certain health services to all of these immigrants is to the country's advantage.

What Washington puts into the pot now will be returned in manifold ways.

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