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Deficit may trigger anti-illegal immigration ballot measure

To save money, activists may try to cut aid for U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

July 10, 2009|Anna Gorman and Teresa Watanabe

As California lawmakers struggle with a budget gap that has now grown to $26.3 billion, one of the hottest topics for many taxpayers is the cost to the state of illegal immigrants.

The question of whether taxpayers should provide services to illegal residents became a major political issue in California's last deep recession, culminating in the ballot fight over Proposition 187 in 1994. That history could repeat itself in the current downturn, as activists opposed to illegal immigration have launched a campaign for an initiative that would, among other things, cut off welfare payments to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. Those children are eligible for welfare benefits because they are U.S. citizens.

State welfare officials estimate that cutting off payments to illegal immigrants for their U.S.-born children could save about $640 million annually if it survives legal challenges.

California has roughly 2.7 million illegal residents, according to an April 2009 report from the authoritative Pew Hispanic Center, accounting for about 7% of the state's population. State officials estimate that they add between $4 billion and $6 billion in costs, primarily for prisons and jails, schools and emergency rooms. Beyond those services, the illegal population adds to the overall cost of other parts of local government, from police and fire protection to highway maintenance and libraries.

On the other side of the ledger, illegal residents pay taxes -- sales taxes on what they buy, gasoline taxes when they fuel their cars, property taxes if they own homes. The total is hotly debated, although most researchers agree that the short-term costs to state and local government are bigger than the revenues.

Many companies that hire illegal workers also withhold Social Security and income taxes from their paychecks, based on workers' invalid Social Security numbers. That money goes mostly to the federal government, not to localities. The Social Security Administration estimates that in 2007, illegal residents nationwide contributed a net of $12 billion to the system.

The largest costs to California's budget from its illegal residents are in three areas:

* Education: The state has no official count of how many students are in the country illegally because school districts do not ask. But the state legislative analyst estimated, based on data from the Pew Hispanic Center, that the state's 6.3 million public school students include about 300,000 illegal residents. At an annual cost of about $7,626 each, the total comes to nearly $2.3 billion.

* Prisons: In fiscal year 2009-10, California expects to spend about $834 million to incarcerate 19,000 illegal immigrants in the state's prisons. In Los Angeles County, illegal immigrants add between $370 million and $550 million annually to criminal justice costs, including prosecution, defense, probation and jails, according to Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

* Healthcare: The expected state tab for healthcare in fiscal 2009-10 is $703 million for as many as 780,000 illegal immigrants. Of that, $486 million goes to emergency services. But low-income illegal residents are also eligible for some nonemergency health services, including prenatal and postpartum care, abortions, breast and cervical cancer treatment and certain types of long-term care, such as stays in nursing homes. Most of the nonemergency care for illegal immigrants was authorized by the Legislature in the 1980s.

Much of those costs are beyond the control of state officials. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the Constitution forbids school districts to turn away children who are illegal immigrants. And federal law requires emergency rooms to treat everyone, regardless of citizenship.

How serious a problem those costs are is a subject of constant debate. "It is a catastrophic hit . . . on every level of government," Antonovich said.

State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego) who heads the Senate budget committee, counters that illegal immigrants are net contributors through their taxes and labor in farming and other industries. Cutting services to illegal residents is "penny wise and pound foolish," Ducheny said.

The Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, based in Palo Alto, has analyzed research on the costs of illegal immigration. Most studies show that at least in the short term, illegal immigrants, who tend to be poorer and have more children than average, use more in public services than they contribute in taxes, the center found.

But the center's director, Stephen Levy, said some of the long-term effects were positive. Educating illegal immigrant children, for instance, helps them eventually land better jobs and higher salaries, benefiting Californians with increased tax payments and more sophisticated work skills.

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