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Calculating the Social Cost of Illegal Immigration

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. You may have noticed already, NPR News is doing several pieces this week on the rhetoric surround immigration. Today, John Rabe of member station KPCC examines what happens when schools and hospitals in local communities have to provide services for undocumented immigrants.

JOHN RABE reporting:

I am in East Los Angeles outside County USC Medical Center. Probably better known to listeners across the U.S. as the facade for General Hospital, the famous soap opera. Thousands of people come to this county run hospital every year because of its excellent emergency room and trauma center. Many of those are illegal immigrants.

Mr. BRUCE CHERNOFF (County Health Chief): We did a study that showed that about $340 million of our overall budget was spent on healthcare for individuals who may be undocumented.

RABE: County Health Chief Bruce Chernoff stresses that's only an estimate.

Mr. CHERNOFF: We don't ask for identification as part of providing care for folks. California law requires us to provide care for everybody when they roll through the doors of our emergency room.

RABE: And the federal government reimburses the county only a fifth of the outpatient costs for each illegal immigrant. An industry group estimates illegal immigrants cost California hospitals $800 million a year. But Ira Mehlman of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says it's really almost twice that. Add in Texas and Arizona and you get $2.6 billion. This is why his group supports stiffer penalties for illegal immigrants and the people who employ them.

Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Federation for American Immigration Reform): They get to hire a low wage worker, we get to pay for the education of the kids, we get to provide the healthcare, we get to provide all the services that people require once they're here.

RABE: FAIR says it's also worried about illegal immigrants spreading TB, tapeworm and even leprosy among the general population. Harry Pachone(ph) head of USC's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute says groups like FAIR use quote "outlandish findings and figures". He says the average illegal immigrant is between 20 and 30, healthy, and not as likely to use public assistance as some others.

Mr. HARRY PACHONE (USC Tomas Rivera Policy Institute): Non-stereotype immigrants are the ones who use it at a higher rate. In other words, it's our refugees that come in from Asia or have come in from Europe that have much higher rates of utilization of healthcare than, for example, Latino immigrants.

RABE: Both sides agree that local and state governments, not the Feds, bare the brunt of the cost of illegal immigration.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

RABE: Take education. Standard and Poor's analyst Oracio Eldrete(ph) ran the numbers.

Mr. ORACIO ELDRETE (Standard and Poor's): If you take the 1.8 million of undocumented children that are currently estimated to be in the country and take the average annual cost the school districts typically allocate for the students, there's about $11.2 billion in annual costs.

RABE: Eldrete says it's impossible to say how much illegal immigrants pay in property taxes which support schools. But FAIR says it's $1.6 billion in California, only somewhat offsetting the $8 billion illegal immigrants cost the system here. Meanwhile, FAIR says 15% of California school kids are children of illegal immigrants. But LA school spokeswoman Olga Kiniones(ph) says who knows.

Ms. OLGA KINIONES (LA School spokeswoman): That is very difficult for any public organization to actually quantify only because by law any public school in the United States cannot ask for students' illegal status.

(Soundbite of children shouting)

RABE: Tired of the rhetoric? Here's a happy ending. At LA's Sun Valley Middle School groundbreaking is next month for a comprehensive clinic on the school grounds for everyone in the poor Latino neighborhood to use regardless of their immigration status. Theoretically healthier students will go on to make more money and pay higher taxes, and healthier parents will make far fewer emergency room visits, a savings that could pay for the clinic and cut the costs of illegal immigration. For NPR News, I'm John Rabe in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Rabe

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