Just How Many Aliens Are Here Illegally? : A school census is a smart place to start, even with names and addresses kept confidential.

<i> Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican, represents Ventura County. </i>

One thing that just about everyone involved in the emotional debate over illegal immigration can agree on is that nobody really knows how extensive the problem is. The trouble is, too many people don’t want to know, as illustrated by the fate of an amendment by my colleague, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), that would have required schools receiving federal funds to provide the U.S. Department of Education with enrollment figures for students who are here illegally or whose parents are here illegally.

The amendment, which was soundly rejected March 3 by the House, would not have required school districts to provide lists of names and addresses to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. All it would have done was help give the American taxpayer a clear accounting of the amount of money our schools spend in educating illegal aliens--costs estimated at $2 billion a year in California alone.

Unfortunately, the quality of debate descended to a level of demagoguery unusual even by House standards, with many opponents of the amendment viciously equating the proposal to the Nazi tactics depicted in “Schindler’s List.” Even more reasonable opponents, who at least pay lip service to the need to do something about illegal immigration, argued that we shouldn’t ask schools to help provide reliable statistics.

Right alongside the Los Angeles Times report on the House debate was a slightly more encouraging article, which noted that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has asked the General Accounting Office to try to determine the costs that illegal immigration imposes on hard-pressed California.


Boxer’s motives may be blatantly partisan--she hopes that the study will discredit Gov. Pete Wilson--and the GAO does have a well-documented history of tailoring reports to meet the desires of powerful congressional Democrats, but she is absolutely right when she says we need to have the best possible estimates.

But to get the information, government and self-appointed activists on this issue are going to have to drop legal and administrative barriers that keep us from finding out how many illegal aliens are living in our nation, and how much they are costing--and contributing to--our economy. It’s simply absurd that the law would punish a school principal who asks about a parent’s residency status, while an employer who doesn’t ask a new hire the same thing also faces jail.

The reason these barriers exist is simple. Advocates of illegal immigrants have to be able to say that there aren’t so many in the United States, and that the ones who are here benefit our economy. Evidence to the contrary would cause their arguments to collapse. That is why they fight so fiercely to prevent the American people and their leaders from learning the truth.

The media aren’t immune from this hemming and hawing over finding out the facts, either. The press--and certainly not just The Times--tends to criticize only those studies that conclude that illegal immigration is a serious problem in our nation. Why is it that articles are printed in which expert after expert tears apart the work of Donald Huddle of Rice University, for example, without similar scrutiny being paid to these critics and their own biases?

During the past several years, I have met with dozens of Border Patrol agents and INS officials, and with health-care providers in Southern California and local government officials trying desperately to find ways to pay for the services the skyrocketing illegal immigration population is demanding. I also have met with advocates of illegal immigrants and with Californians from all ethnic backgrounds and all walks of life who have felt the impact of illegal immigration on their lives. My conclusion is that we do have a major problem, and what needs to be done first is simple: Shed as much light as possible on it and then take action based on those facts.

It would be helpful to know whether the illegal-alien population in the United States totals 3.5 million, 4.8 million, 6 million or more than 8 million. And I’m confident that behind the shrouds of secrecy is conclusive proof that illegal aliens do take jobs and are a drain on scarce public services such as health care, government assistance and education--jobs and services that American citizens are entitled to. I hope the veil is pulled back soon.

Keep in mind that those who are hurt the most by illegal immigration are those who can least afford to be hurt--our less-fortunate citizens, many of them members of minority groups, who need entry-level jobs and government assistance to lift themselves out of poverty. These are the people we cannot forget in the debate over numbers and dollars.