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Recommendations Deserve Attention : Report on Immigration Costs Treats Issue Responsibly

There are some who may want to quibble with a report last week that attempted to define how much illegal immigration costs Orange County. As it turned out, solid numbers weren’t easy to come by. But the report, by resisting the temptation to jump to conclusions, responsibly dealt with the explosive issue of illegal immigration in the county. It also offered thoughtful recommendations for action by the County Board of Supervisors, which should take them seriously.

In a 57-page report, the county staff concluded that programs costing the county up to $230 million last year were available to legal as well as illegal residents. Within that amount, however, the county could document only several million dollars attributable directly to illegal immigrants. Included were between $1.5 million and $2.2 million in criminal justice costs and $1.3 million for the children of illegal immigrants who qualified for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. There was also $54,000 for returning minors, who are illegal immigrants, to Mexico.

That there are further costs is unquestioned. And, despite the fears that these numbers will be misused by xenophobes, it would be useful for Orange County to find out exactly what those costs are. It would help bolster California’s attempt to force the federal government to pay more of its share for federally mandated services for immigrants.

Currently, the state’s congressional delegation is lobbying for reimbursement of $1.8 billion in criminal justice, welfare, health care and other costs for both legal and illegal immigrants in California. That’s a huge shortfall, especially given the devastating impact of the recession on government.

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Local governments especially are anxious to do whatever it takes to get a share of the federal reimbursements. But, by focusing only on the cost to government, the benefits of immigration do not get the attention they deserve. That unnecessarily feeds racial tension.

Unfortunately, the benefit side of the equation is even more difficult to quantify. Still, the Orange County report on immigration says that a review of existing data suggests that immigrant groups “make significant social and economic contributions and, in many instances, pay more taxes than they take out in services.”

The hard part for local governments is that most tax revenues generated by immigrants go elsewhere. A Los Angeles County study indicated that 89% of the tax revenues collected from legal and illegal immigrants last year went to the federal or state governments and only 11% to either the county or other local governments. Yet counties, cities and school districts are providing the bulk of the services required for immigrants. This situation is clearly unfair.

One of the recommendations of the Orange County report on the fiscal impact of illegal immigrants is that the county join with San Diego and Los Angeles counties to “aggressively” lobby for higher rates of federal reimbursement. That almost goes without saying.

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County Administrative Officer Ernest Schneider said it would cost up to $500,000 to finance a study that would define more accurately what the county spends on illegal immigration. That’s not necessary, especially at a time when the county is facing a whopping $93-million shortfall in its 1992-93 budget.

The report issued last week may leave some questions unanswered. But it does provide an outline for action for the Board of Supervisors. And, by sticking strictly to the known facts, it should not stir up anti-immigrant feelings unnecessarily in Orange County.


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