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California and the West

Study Tallies Cost of Illegal Immigration

Services: Border counties pay $108 million a year in law enforcement and medical expenses, report says. Officials cite findings in calling for more federal funding.

February 06, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Counties along the Mexican border--including some of the poorest in the United States--shell out $108 million a year in police, court and emergency medical care costs associated with illegal immigrants, according to a new study that is the first to tally such expenses across the nation.

Slightly more than half of the total costs nationwide were borne by California's two border counties, San Diego and Imperial, according to the analysis funded by the U.S. government and issued by the U.S./Mexico Border Counties Coalition. Those two counties spent $55.7 million on law enforcement and emergency treatment for illegal immigrants in 1999, the year that was analyzed.

Officials in San Diego and Imperial counties cited the findings Monday in renewing calls on the federal government to dramatically increase the amount it gives to the 24 U.S. border counties to defray costs of incarcerating and prosecuting illegal immigrants arrested on state charges or given medical care.

County officials complain that they end up paying for federal immigration policies that are out of their hands.

"This is a federal problem that needs a federal solution," said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district touches the international border and has been a hot spot for illegal crossings through the mountains of east San Diego County.

The lion's share, or nearly $40 million, of San Diego's $50.3-million tab went for sheriff and coroner services and prosecutors, court costs and probation supervision. "Think how we could have spent the $40 million here," Jacob said, citing a need for more parks and ball fields.

The study was prepared by university researchers from all four U.S. border states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It will be used to lobby for extra federal aid. County officials expressed optimism that President Bush's experience on the border as former governor of Texas will make him a sympathetic audience.

Officials in counties along the Southwest border have long faced expenses related to illegal immigration because of their locations. But in recent years the burden has worsened in impoverished rural counties, where illegal crossings have surged drastically as the United States government cracked down along urban zones, such as San Diego.

"Counties and county taxpayers are subsidizing the federal policies. We don't think this is fair," said Sharon Bronson, a supervisor in Pima County, Ariz., and president of the border coalition.

She said that many counties along the 2,000-mile international border already struggle to provide basic services with skimpy resources.

In Pima County, which includes Tucson, the increase in the flow of undocumented immigrants has increased the need for more jail cells, Bronson said. "Because we've had to keep up with jails, we don't have enough left over for transportation."

In Imperial County, supervisors declared a local emergency in 1998 in the face of fast-rising costs of providing hospital care and conduct autopsies and sheriff's investigations into about 100 migrant deaths.

Imperial County Supervisor Tony Tirado said the financial toll--$5.4 million--has piled new financial demands on a county that he said fares worst in California in per capita income and joblessness.

"We have a tight budget," Tirado said. "It doesn't help our community one bit."

Counties get limited help from a federal aid effort, called the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, that compensates state and local governments nationwide for incarcerating illegal immigrants. In 1999, border counties received $12.4 million--or less than one-eighth of their expenses related to illegal immigrants--in such aid. The allotment for the entire country was $585 million.

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) last month proposed $1.6 billion in aid during the next four years, including $200 million to help states and border communities cover criminal justice expenses and an identical amount to provide emergency medical aid.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Financial Strain at the Border

County officials on the Mexican border want more aid from the U.S. government to pay costs associated with unlawful immigration, such as law enforcement and medical services. A new study tallied expenses for all 24 border counties; federal funds for incarceration cover a tiny portion of the costs.

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Source: U.S./Mexico Border Counties Coalition

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