Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Crossing the Line: Border Stories

Your browser does not support this object. View the original here:

Video published July 23, 2010 | Download MP4 | View transcript

Above: KPBS reporters explore the financial impact and personal toll of illegal immigration in this half hour television news special.

— JOANNE FARYON (Host): Hello everyone, I’m Joanne Faryon. Welcome to this Envision special, "Crossing the Line: Border Stories." As the country debates Arizona's controversial new immigration law, we take a closer look at unauthorized immigration here in San Diego County. Tonight, we’ll explore why migrants take big risks to work in the U.S., and what happens to the children of deported parents. But first, a look at the numbers. Three million unauthorized immigrants live here in California. The statistics raise an important economic question –- just what are the financial implications of such a large undocumented population?

MARTHA TORKINGTON: You can look up on the hillside and see the tracks. They look almost like water tracks but they are human tracks coming down.

FARYON: Martha Torkinton points to the faded yellow tracks that traverse down the hillside. This is the view from her horse ranch in the south westerly edge of San Diego County. On the other side of this hill is Mexico. Torkington has seen her share of migrants trickle past these hills.

Special Feature Crossing The Line: Border Stories

Envision San Diego takes a closer look at illegal immigration, exploring why migrants take big risks to work in the U.S., what happens to the children of deported parents, and how this region benefits from -- and pays a price for -- its unauthorized migrant labor pool.

TORKINGTON: The ones who do want to come in and contribute and participate in the United States we want them, but the other side is we don’t want to support them, it's tough, it’s a tough situation.

FARYON: Just whether illegal immigrants cost more than they contribute is a complicated question.

JOHN SKRENTNY (UCSD Sociologist): Immigration, most sociologists will tell you have short term costs but long term benefits.

FARYON: John Skrentny is a sociology professor at UCSD and the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.

SKRENTNY: The fiscal impact tends to be positive for the federal government and negative for localities and states. The studies will indicate the negatives for localities and states are not that huge, but it is negative. For the federal government it tends to be positive.

FARYON: A few years ago the Congressional Budget Office looked at the various studies of the financial impacts of illegal immigrants to state and local budgets. This report looked at health care, law enforcement, and education.

RICHARD BARRERA (San Diego Unified School Board President): I’m Richard Barrera and I’m the president of the San Diego Unified School Board.

FARYON: By law, all children in the U.S. have access to public school, despite their immigration status.

BARRERA: Our job is to educated kids that come into our schools and it's not out job to try and discern their immigration status.

FARYON: About two million school age children in the U.S. are illegal immigrants. Studies estimate it costs between 20 and 40 percent more to teach kids who are not fluent in English, but Richard Barrera says contributions made by immigrants far outweigh the cost.

BARERRA: We realize that every kid we educate is going to be a contributor to our community and our country. We all benefit when we educate children. None of our lives will get any better by keeping kids out of school.

FARYON: Studies have found immigrants are less likely to have health insurance and are more likely to rely on emergency rooms for medical care. By law, emergency rooms must treat people regardless of their ability to pay or immigration status. San Diego County government does not operate a county hospital and therefore does not incur emergency room costs. However, privately run emergency rooms do incur some of those expenses. For example, Scripps Health operates four nonprofit hospitals in the county. It estimates illegal immigrants accounted for about $10 million in charitable care last year. Undocumented residents are also eligible for some state health care programs such as Medi-Cal, and county health services such as immunizations. Research shows that immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to be incarcerated. However, a 1999 study by the United States/Mexico Border Counties Coalition found that San Diego County spent $50 million in law enforcement related to illegal immigrants. Taxes paid by illegal immigrants offset some of the costs. The IRS estimates about half of all illegal immigrants file income tax returns. Many also pay sales and property taxes. The net effect –- cost versus contribution -– is a tricky calculation. At the federal level, the unauthorized population may actually pay more in taxes than they receive in federal benefits. However, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that taxes paid at the local and state level do not offset the cost of local services, particularly in California, the state with the largest number of illegal immigrants. Skrentny says in the long run, contributions made by an undocumented worker benefits the overall economy.

SKRENTNY: Over a lifetime of the migrant, an undocumented immigrants tend to stay here the taxes they pay will exceed the taxes they are taking in right now. It would be different if were getting waves of undocumented elderly who would come here and impose immediately all kinds of costs on the health care system and they wouldn’t be working and they wouldn’t be generating much tax revenue, they wouldn’t be generating much wealth that would be a different story.

FARYON: Richard Barrera believes the debate over the cost of illegal immigration is being fueled by bad economic times and politicians offering easy answers to complex problems.

BARRERA: They want an easy answer and they want to be able to say if we only took a group and their families and we rounded them up and took them back across the border, that our lives would get easier.

TORKINGTON: Often what you’ll see is clothing, that’s a perfect example of a piece of clothing you’ll see on the trails that they follow and sometimes you’ll see a whole change of clothes.

FARYON: It turns out one of the largest and most tangible costs of illegal immigration is right here in front of Martha Torkington’s property. It’s the cost of keeping migrants from jumping the fence and crossing over this hill. This year the U.S. Border Patrol will spend $3.6 billion patrolling the country’s borders -- almost triple the amount spent 10 years ago. Despite the economic downturn, the desire to work and live in the U.S. continues to drive migrants north. They come looking for a better way of life. Reporter Amy Isackson brings us the story of one man’s journey.

AMY ISACKSON (KPBS News): This is Oaxaca. It’s a state in Southern Mexico known for its rich culture. It’s also a state where 75 percent of people live in extreme poverty. Work is scarce. For the last 70 years, men have headed north to the United States to find jobs. Rogelio Mendez is one of them.

ROGELIO MENDEZ: We’re the kids of an ex-bracero. They told us that in the United States the dollar was worth something, more than the Mexican peso.

ISACKSON: In 1974, Mendez and his father, older brother and cousin took a bus from Oaxaca to Tijuana to try their luck across the border. Mendez was 17 years old. From the station, they had special instructions from friends and family who’d traveled the route before, to take a taxi the few miles to Colonia Libertad to meet another relative who’d help them cross the border.

MENDEZ: Because even though the taxi is more expensive, they aren’t going to kill you or kidnap you.

ISACKSON: This is where Rogelio Mendez first crossed the border. These days, barely anyone tries their luck here. There are two fences. The border has also been fortified with the latest technology, like motion sensors and infrared cameras. And there are a lot more Border Patrol agents. Years ago, that wasn’t the case.

MENDEZ: The Border Patrol wasn’t so strict. You could cross where you wanted to.

ISACKSON: Mendez, his dad and brother eventually landed work in the fields in California. For the first three weeks, they didn’t have money for food and ate only tomatoes and a plant they recognized from Oaxaca. They lived in a canyon. When the picking season ended, they went back to Mexico. Mendez repeated this pattern for a dozen years. His brother taught him how to do roofing and construction. In 1986, along with nearly three million other illegal immigrants, Mendez earned residency in the United States under the immigration reform act. Mendez went through ups and downs, but he was able to work most of the time.

MENDEZ: We were able to send home four or five hundred dollars a month. I didn’t have a house in Oaxaca. We built one. Those were the benefits of the time that was really good.

ISACKSON: Mendez brought his family to San Diego. In 2004, 30 years after he first crossed the border, he bought a home here. Many of his friends and family from Oaxaca did, too.

MENDEZ: We all bought. Then we all lost. I think we are in the worst crisis in the United States.

ISACKSON: The economic crisis has hit street corners across San Diego, like this one in Vista. Jorge Ruiz has picked up work from North County street corners for the last 20 years. He also earned his residency with immigration reform in 1986. He had a few steady jobs. He says he used to earn 20 to 30 dollars an hour. Now, it’s eight. Ruiz says he hasn’t worked in two weeks.

JORGE RUIZ: A lot of the time, you just have to endure the hunger. It’s tremendous suffering. The guys, we say, hey, buy me a soda or a roll, I don’t have anything. And then, the family in Mexico, they say, hey, what about your kids here and paying for their school? But, I haven’t worked. I don’t have anything for me. I am living out in a field.

ISACKSON: Ruiz says many of his friends who couldn’t make rent anymore moved back into the canyons. Mendez says, even so, it’s still more attractive to stay here.

MENDEZ: People who don’t have documents don’t leave because their kids were born here. Even if they’re just working one, two or three times a week, they can dress them. Several families pool their money to make rent. But, if they go south, where are they going to work? There’s nowhere to work.

ISACKSON: UCSD Professor Wayne Cornelius studied migration in the small Oaxacan village where Mendez is from. He says people there and in villages throughout Mexico have been hit by a double whammy -– the U.S. downturn and historic economic contraction in Mexico.

WAYNE CORNELIUS (UCSD Professor): It’s been far more severe in Mexico than it has been in the United States. So it’s required a great deal of ingenuity to ride this out on both sides of the border.

ISACKSON: Mendez says he has an idea. He’s working on plans, with three San Diego engineers, to tap into underground aquifers in his village back home to irrigate hundreds of acres of arable land.

CORNELIUS: A big water project like that will need machines and workers. So we’ll create work. Electricians, plumbers, all will have work. And why will they come here if they have work there? Taxis, restaurants, shop owners, they’ll all have work because the economy will start moving again.

ISACKSON: Mendez says a reliable water source will grow new crops and new life in the village. Wayne Cornelius says that might provide an incentive for older people to stay put. But for 17-year-olds, farming doesn’t compete with the possibility of an iPhone in the United States. Amy Isackson, KPBS news.

FARYON: The national immigration debate largely centers on the viewpoints of adults. Very little attention is paid to the children affected by immigration enforcement and policies. Research shows today there are an estimated 5.5 million children with parents who are in the country illegally. If those parents are deported, some of those young people are left to fend for themselves. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis tells us about the kids who are left behind.

(Classroom): When I dream about my future I see myself…

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS News): A group of high school students in Vista goes over their classroom assignment before the final school bell rings. This class is like any other in San Diego County, except for one big difference. Each student is either pregnant or has a baby.

TEACHER: Boy that's a powerful feeling as a mother when no one else can calm your child down and you take that baby in your arms and they stop crying, huh…

TINTOCALIS: These teenage girls are all coming to terms with their new reality as young mothers. Most have family to fall back on. But one student is not so lucky. Amy is 16 years old. She’s living in Vista illegally. She didn't want to show her face or give her last name for fear of getting caught. Amy says her family was smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico when she was just in fourth grade. She says her family lived peacefully in the shadows of the law for almost a decade. Then immigration officials arrested Amy's mother at a bus stop in Vista last year. Amy was at school.

AMY: I came home from school and the phone rang when I got there. And it was my mom. And she told me. It was very difficult cause… we just got upset because my mom got deported.

TINTOCALIS: Amy was about eight months pregnant at the time.

TINTOCALIS: Were you able to see your mom before she was taken away?

AMY: No.

TINTOCALIS: So that was the last time you saw her?

AMY: Yeah, in the morning.

TINTOCALIS: And then what happened after that?

AMY: After that, my sister decided to go with her. And my dad stayed here to work for a little bit and then he left.

TINTOCALIS: And why did he leave?

AMY: Because he didn't want to leave my mom alone. So…they left.

TINTOCALIS: Amy says it was an agonizing decision, but she and her parents agreed Amy should stay with her boyfriend. But things began to fall apart when Amy and her boyfriend separated. Within just a few months, Amy was homeless.

AMY: Yeah, I just went with this friend, she's like my best friend. I spent some of the days with her because I didn't want to be alone.

TINTOCALIS: The plight of children like Amy was highlighted in a recent study by the nonprofit Urban Institute Researchers, noted that at least 100,000 parents living and working in the U.S. illegally have been detained or deported over the past decade, often in workplace raids. They've left behind thousands of children. The study finds when those kids are separated from their parents, they suffer a wide range of financial, social and emotional hardships. The most common is not having a stable place to live. Martha Flores is a social worker. She says she’s seen an increase in the number of children left behind.

MARTHA FLORES (Social Worker): For the time being, they are homeless. The home they would have gone back to, there are no parents there anymore, so they are obviously not able to stay there. And so usually someone will step in, a family member, a friend, the church –- somebody is able to help them out during but sometimes it’s temporary.

TINTOCALIS: Carmen Chavez is executive director of Casa Cornelia, a law firm that provides free legal service to kids caught up in the immigration process.

CARMEN CHAVEZ (Casa Cornelia Law Center): It is a very sad situation. Because it really has pulled apart so many families and unless the family has some kind of pre-existing plan. What we find what happens, and the telephone calls that we get are from teachers, school counselors, social workers and good Samaritans.

TINTOCALIS: Chavez works to get their parents status legalized so she can reunite the families in the U.S. But more often than not, the young people end up living with relatives or friends. Others enter the foster care system. She says still others simply fall through the cracks.

CHAVEZ: What about the kids that have not been identified? What about the child that becomes homeless? And they are cases where children end up in the streets of San Diego. Some of them are U.S. citizens, some of them are foreign born, but they just weren't detained alongside the mother. So what happens to those kids is very tragic.

TINTOCALIS: Chavez supports a series of policy recommendations issued by the Urban Institute –- one of which states that U.S.-born children should have a court-appointed legal guardian who can fast-track a petition so one of their parents can legally live in the U.S. Congressman Brian Bilbray, Chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, disagrees.

BRIAN BILBRAY (Congressman, 50th District): This is calculated strategy of how to move the legalization issue. We'll start with the children, we'll use that as excuse to get some people in, and then once we allow the parents of children to get amnesty, we'll then say, well we gave it to this group, we should give it to everybody. The fact is we don't have enough safety net right now for those who are legally in our country. Now to be talking about carve-outs to those who have broken out rules is really counterproductive.

TINTOCALIS: Regardless of what side people take on the immigration debate, one thing is for sure -– immigration policies and enforcement have resulted in the separation of countless of young people from their parents. That reality might prompt adults in the immigration debate to start focusing on the children who have been left out of the picture.

FARYON: The immigration issue sparks strong views. That’s because there are powerful interest groups who have much at stake in either changing things – or keeping things as they are. KPBS reporter Alison St John takes a look at who are the winners and losers under the current system.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS News): An estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants work in San Diego County. They bring costs and benefits. UCSD Economics Professor Gordon Hanson says the problem is those costs and benefits are not evenly distributed.

GORDON HANSON (UCSD Economics Professor): Those benefits go primarily to one group of individuals and that’s employers in industries that hire illegal immigrant intensively: construction, agriculture, hospitality, tourism.

ST JOHN: Agriculture is a $5 billion a year industry in San Diego. Erik Larsen is with Farm Bureau. He says 5,000 family-owned farms in San Diego would not survive without migrant labor.

ERIC LARSON (Executive Director, San Diego Farm Bureau): We grow these specialty crops that take a tremendous amount of labor to hand plant, hand care and hand harvest. If we don’t have an abundant workforce of laborers then we can’t have these crops and these farms will just go away.

ST JOHN: Larson says San Diegans benefit from fresh, locally grown produce and open space that might turn into housing developments.

LARSON: Without it, the avocado tree that blanket the hills of Fallbrook, Valley Center, the oranges here in San Pasqual Valley, the nurseries of San Marcos, Vista, Carlsbad, the flower fields, it goes on and on, without farm workers those all go away.

ST JOHN: Construction and tourism also benefit from the pool of illegal immigrant labor… their lower labor costs boost profits and keeps consumer cost down. So who are the losers?

HANSON: Among the losers are workers who compete with immigrants for jobs and that’s a minority of workers in San Diego county. The workers who face the most competition from illegal immigrants would be U.S. workers who haven’t completed high school. That’s less than 10% of the total labor force.

ST JOHN: San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray says that’s a problem. He says the losers are at the bottom of the economic heap and don’t have much political clout.

BRIAN BILBRAY (Congressman, 50th District): If illegals were coming in and taking the professors’ jobs and the lawyers jobs, there would be a lot more outcry in Washington and Sacramento about doing something about it

ST JOHN: But Bilbray says taxpayers are the biggest losers because they are footing the bill for health and education services for illegal immigrants.

BILBRAY: The fact is, there are a few who are making money off this and they’re expecting the general population to carry this and that needs to be brought up, you got to stop that. The trouble is the very wealthy and the very powerful are the ones who are making the most out of this, who are making the most profit out of this.

ST JOHN: The wealthy also use immigrant labor to maintain their mansions and manicure their estates. Hanson says they are winners because the cost savings of using immigrant labor more than balances the taxes they pay that cover health and education for immigrant families.

HANSON: Compare that wealthy family with an upper middle class family. In a higher income tax bracket but your income doesn’t make it possible for you to pay for all the home care, child care, yard care services that that wealthy family is getting. That family, they might be net losers.

ST JOHN: In fact, some unauthorized immigrants pay taxes too. This man, who did not want us to use his name, has lived and worked in San Diego illegally for 20 years.

ORTIZ: This is the actual document the IRS sent me and through this number I been doing my tax reports every year since 1993.

ST JOHN: The federal government assigns workers an official number called an “Individual Taxpayer Identification Number” so employers can deduct taxes from their wages.

ORTIZ: This is 1998, I would be more than willing to prove that I been paying taxes like everybody else.

ST JOHN: But he will never see any earned income tax credits or social security because he isn’t a U.S. citizen.

HANSON: Those payroll taxes go to the federal government which keeps it, and you’re talking in the order of $40 to $50 billion a year.

ORTIZ: No matter how long I been here, no matter how much taxes I been paying, there is no law that says OK, you could be legal.

ST JOHN: People of all political stripes may agree the current system unfairly creates winners and losers, but they disagree on how to fix it.

HANSON: There’s a built in inequity in the system. We’ve got to do a better job of spreading the benefits of immigration around than we do currently.

BILBRAY: If you’re here legally you have rights and you’ll have a better life and if you are here illegally you‘re going to need to go home.

LARSON: The community is going to have to make a choice, it’s not the farmers choice or the farmer workers’ choice… does the community want this agriculture here and does the community want immigrant workers to come here and do the work?

ST JOHN: Until there is a better understanding of who’s getting the benefits of illegal immigrant labor and who’s paying the costs, it will be difficult to get enough support to craft solutions.

FARYON: You can learn more about this issue by going to our website For KPBS and Envision San Diego, I’m Joanne Faryon, thanks for watching.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.