Counties, Concerned Over Amnesty Issue, Study Added Costs : Southern California Weighs Impact of Alien Bill
Nowhere is the potential impact of the immigration revision bill adopted Friday greater than in Southern California--home, by some estimates, to nearly one-third of the illegal aliens in the country.
As the measure made its final passage through Congress this week on its way to the White House, government officials from Sacramento to the Mexican border were laboring to gauge its costs and benefits.
Their work is complicated by the absence of authoritative estimates of how many illegal aliens living in the state will win amnesty--legal status--under the bill.
The U.S. Census Bureau counted 658,000 illegal aliens in Los Angeles County alone in 1980--32% of the nationwide total of 2,057,000. The bureau estimates that an additional 500,000 to 1.5 million illegals nationwide were not counted.
The bill offers legal residency to illegal aliens who can prove they have been in the country since before Jan. 1, 1982. Those deemed likely to become a “public charge” may be disqualified. Estimates vary on how many people will meet these requirements.
To begin with, it is difficult to determine how many residents are in the United States illegally because few aliens volunteer such a fact. Moreover, the same fears may make many reluctant to apply to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for legal status, even if they are eligible.
The INS is preparing to open 28 legalization offices in its western region, including 13 serving what agency officials estimate may be as many as 1 million illegal immigrants qualifying for amnesty in Los Angeles County.
But Antonio Rodriguez, director of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, predicted that no more than 100,000 people will win amnesty in the county.
Los Angeles County officials estimate that 800,000 residents may win amnesty and project $190 million in annual county costs for services to newly legal aliens.
Effect Called ‘Big Gamble’
Mark Tajima, a county legislative analyst, said the ultimate effect of the legislation remains “a big gamble or unknown.”
“We’re just the ones who have to assume the risk or gamble, to a large degree,” Tajima said. “We’re the ones who are left potentially holding the bag if it turns out to be more costly, given the fact that no one knows for sure.”
Conservative members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors persistently have complained in recent years that county governments are unfairly paying the costs of social services used by illegal aliens. Provisions of the bill did little to ease those complaints.
“From the point of view of local government, this bill probably has compounded our problem rather than solving it,” said Pete Schabarum, chairman of the Los Angeles county board. Schabarum said he believes that most of the projected $190 million in annual county costs will not be reimbursed by the federal government, despite a provision setting aside $4 billion to reimburse state and local expenses.
The measure aggravates “an already impossible fiscal dilemma facing the taxpayers of Los Angeles County,” Schabarum said. “We firmly believe that (the) federal government should reimburse all legalization-related costs.”
Projection Seen Exaggerated
Supervisor Ed Edelman, however, said he believes that the $190 million projection was exaggerated “to try to get the federal government’s attention in this area.”
“The people that come over here come to work, and very few will go on welfare,” Edelman said. “The net contributions outweigh the costs.”
A Los Angeles County study conducted last year showed that illegal immigrants in the county pay about $2.8 billion in taxes a year--far more than they get back in such public services as police or welfare--but that most of the tax money goes to Washington. About 60% goes to the federal government, 32% to the state, and only about $110 million a year comes back to the county, according to the study.
Orange and San Diego county officials say the bill also will cost them money.
Orange County officials said a study made three years ago indicated that newly legal residents would increase the county’s general relief costs by $8.4 million over three years.
The study also predicted more pressure on the county’s indigent medical services program but gave no cost estimates.
San Diego County officials said the measure is likely to lead to increased health and welfare costs, but that no specific projections were available.
Shift in Expenditures
One complication in projecting net costs to county governments, however, is that counties are already spending money on health services for illegals and much of that expenditure will shift to the state and federal governments.
That’s because aliens who gain legal status will become eligible for federal- and state-funded health care programs such as Medi-Cal and Supplemental Security Income payments for the aged, blind and disabled. Los Angeles County projects that the state will face annual expenses in the county of $149 million and that the federal share will be $144 million, Tajima said.
At the same time, aliens who gain legal status under the bill will be ineligible for five years for most federally funded welfare benefits, including Aid to Families With Dependent Children. What worries county officials is that the newly legal residents may seek general relief welfare, which is funded entirely by counties.
Los Angeles County’s $190-million projection includes an estimated $148 million a year in general relief welfare payments to newly legal residents and $42 million for health services, Tajima said.
Although the bill contains provisions for as much as $4 billion for reimbursements to state and local governments over the next seven years, federal expenses first will be deducted from that amount, according to Los Angeles County and congressional sources. Because what is left will go in block grants to the states, Los Angeles and other counties may never receive full reimbursement, Tajima said.
Public school, community college and city officials say the new law will have little impact on their budgets because they serve people irrespective of legal status.
State officials have done little analysis of the bill’s potential effects. “There is no way to project any impact at this time,” said Kathleen Norris, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services.
David Gordon, deputy superintendent for governmental affairs in the state Department of Education, said that “it could be that California will get $300 million to $400 million a year (in federal reimbursement funds) of which education would get not less than 10%.”
“We are absorbing the costs anyway,” said Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction. “We were feeling the pinch, and this seems to correct it a little bit . . . . Basically, it’s positive from education’s standpoint.”
New Costs Possible
There could be some new costs if people who previously were afraid to attend community colleges now start attending classes, “but that’s also an investment,” Honig added.
“It may cost you short-term, but you end up benefiting,” he said. “Those are the costs we like to absorb.”
Meanwhile, the INS is moving ahead with plans to open legalization offices. The facilities, each staffed by about 20 employees and capable of processing 150 applications a day, are scheduled to open in six months.
Otherwise, INS officials were reluctant to discuss the potential impact of the bill, at least until it is signed into law by President Reagan.
“You can’t formulate a policy until you have a bill,” said John Belluardo, a spokesman for the western regional office of the INS.
Alan Eliason, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol in the San Diego sector, said that “in practical terms, it’s simply too early for me to sit here and say exactly what we are going to do.”
“Nothing is going to stop illegal entry overnight,” he added.
Staff writers John Needham in Orange County and Patrick McDonnell in San Diego contributed to this story.