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Illegal immigrants are a factor in the budget gap math

February 02, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Based on my e-mail, a lot of folks think the solution to California's state budget deficit is to round up all the illegal immigrants and truck them down to Mexico.

Wrong. Even if it were logistically possible and the deportees didn't just climb off the truck and hitch another ride back up north, their absence from the state wouldn't come close to saving enough tax dollars to balance a budget that has a $42-billion hole projected over the next 17 months.

Painful cuts in education, healthcare and social service programs still would be needed. Sharp tax increases would be required.

That said, let's be honest: Illegal immigration does cost California taxpayers a substantial wad, undeniably into the billions.

But it hasn't been PC for officeholders to talk about this for years, ever since Gov. Pete Wilson broke his pick waging an aggressive campaign for Proposition 187. That 1994 ballot initiative sought to bar illegal immigrants from most public services, including education. Voters approved the measure overwhelmingly, but it was tossed out by the courts.

Wilson was demonized by Democrats within the Latino community. And many think the Republican Party never has recovered among this rapidly growing slice of the electorate.

So it's not a topic that comes easily to the tongues of politicians, even Republicans.

Besides, most of the policy issues are out of California's hands. The federal government has jurisdiction over the border. Federal law decrees that every child is entitled to attend public school, regardless of immigration status. And every person -- here illegally or not -- must be cared for in hospital emergency rooms.

But the state does add a few benefits that aren't required.

And as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders dig into the books trying to find billions in savings, at least a brief look at what's being spent on illegal immigrants seems in order.

First, nobody seems to know exactly. Numbers vary widely, depending which side they come from in the ongoing angry debate over whether people who entered the country illegally to work should be allowed to stay or loaded on the southbound truck.

But here are some no-agenda numbers:

There were 2.8 million illegal immigrants living in California in 2006, the last year for which there are relatively good figures, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. That represented about 8% of the state's population and roughly a quarter of the nation's illegal immigrants. About 90% of California's illegal immigrants were from Latin America; 65% from Mexico.

There are roughly 19,000 illegal immigrants in state prisons, representing 11% of all inmates. That's costing $970 million during the current fiscal year. The feds kick in a measly $111 million, leaving the state with an $859 million tab.

Schools are the toughest to calculate. Administrators don't ask kids about citizenship status. Anyway, many children of illegal immigrants were born in this country and automatically became U.S. citizens.

If you figure that the children of illegal immigrants attending K-12 schools approximates the proportion of illegal immigrants in the population, the bill currently comes to roughly $4 billion. Most is state money; some local property taxes.

Illegal immigrants aren't entitled to welfare, called CalWORKs. But their citizen children are. Roughly 190,000 kids are receiving welfare checks that pass through their parents. The cost: about $500 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Schwarzenegger has proposed removing these children from the welfare rolls after five years. It's part of a broader proposal to also boot off, after five years, the children of U.S. citizens who aren't meeting federal work requirements. There'd be a combined savings of $522 million.

The state is spending $775 million on Medi-Cal healthcare for illegal immigrants, according to the legislative analyst. Of that, $642 million goes into direct benefits. Practically all the rest is paid to counties to administer the program. The feds generally match the state dollar-for-dollar on mandatory programs.

So-called emergency services are the biggest state cost: $536 million. Prenatal care is $59 million. Not counted in the overall total is the cost of baby delivery -- $108 million -- because the newborns aren't illegal immigrants.

The state also pays $47 million for programs that Washington does not require: Non-emergency care (breast and cervical cancer treatment), $25 million; long-term nursing home care, $19 million; abortions, $3 million.

Schwarzenegger has proposed requiring illegal immigrants to requalify every month for Medi-Cal benefits, except pregnancy-related emergencies.

There also are other taxpayer costs -- especially through local governments -- but those are the biggies for the state. Add them all up and the state spends well over $5 billion a year on illegal immigrants and their families.

Of course, illegal immigrants do pay state taxes. But no way do they pay enough to replenish what they're drawing in services. Their main revenue contribution would be the sales tax, but they can't afford to be big consumers, and food and prescription drugs are exempt.

My view is this: These people are here illegally and shouldn't be, regardless of whether they're just looking for a better life. Do it the legal way. And enforce the law against hiring the undocumented.

On the other hand, they are here. We can't have uneducated kids and unhealthy people living with us. We have moral obligations and practical imperatives.

The Obama administration and Congress need to finally pass an immigration reform act that allows for an agriculture work program and a route to citizenship.

Meanwhile, California should be honest about the costs. Illegal immigrants are not the sole cause of the state's deficit. But they are a drain.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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