The Border's Bottom Line
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?
It's a question Martha Torkington asks herself often. She owns a horse ranch in the south westerly edge of San Diego County.
“You can look up on the hillside and see the tracks. They look almost like water tracks but they are human tracks coming down,” Torkington says, pointing to the faded yellow tracks that traverse down the hillside across from her property.
On the other side of the hill is Mexico. Torkington has seen her share of unauthorized immigration trickle past this hillside.
“The ones who do want to come in and contribute and participate in the United States, we want them. The other side is we don’t want to support them. It's tough. It’s a tough situation.”
Just whether unauthorized immigrants cost more than they contribute is a complicated question.
“Immigration most sociologists will tell you have short term costs but long term benefits,” says John Skrentny, a UCSD sociology professor and director of The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.
“The fiscal impact tends to be positive for the federal government and negative for localities and states,” Skrentny says.
A few years ago the Congressional Budget Office looked at the various studies of the financial impacts of unauthorized immigrants to state and local budgets.
Their report looked at health care, law enforcement, and education.
About two million school age children in the U.S. are unauthorized immigrants. By law, all children have access to public school regardless of their immigration status. Studies estimate it costs between 20 and 40 percent more to teach kids who are not fluent in English.
Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School district. He says the benefits of educating all kids far outweigh the costs.
"We realize that every kid we educate is going to be a contributor to our community and our country. We all benefit when we educated children. “
Many of the financial impact studies conclude that at the local and state level, the cost of providing education, health care and law enforcement cost more then unauthorized immigrants pay in taxes. Especially here in California, the state with the greatest number of unauthorized immigrants. However, at the federal level, and over the long-run, it’s a different story.
”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,” Skrentny says.
Studies also show half of all unauthorized immigrants file income tax returns and many pay sales and property taxes.
Richard Barrera believes the debate over the cost of unauthorized immigration is being fueled by bad economic times and politicians offering easy answers to complex problems.
“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.”
Martha Torkington points to a black knit cap she sees on the hillside as she tours a journalist along the hills separating the U.S. from Mexico.
The cap is a hallmark of an illegal trek made in the dark - migrants wear black to cross in the night and then discard their clothes for more "American-looking" clothes, Torkington says.
There are also two U.S. Border Patrol trucks making their way through the hills and a series of lights that almost make the hillside look like a ballpark.
It turns out one of the largest and most tangible costs of unauthorized immigration is right here in front of Martha Torkington’s property.
It is the cost of keeping undocumented 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.