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How much does an illegal immigrant cost?

November 27, 2007 |  3:58 pm

Three big papers report this week on three new local studies challenging assumptions about the cost of illegal immigration. The Times writes up a UCLA study finding that in California, Latino illegal immigrants are less likely to visit doctors, clinics, and even emergency rooms compared to U.S.-born Latinos. (That doesn't mean that illegal immigrants healthcare is low-cost, however, particularly because they're less likely to have health insurance than native Latinos — some studies put the cost well over $1 billion.)

The New York Times noted that immigrants (legal and illegal) contribute nearly a quarter of the state's economy (and make up 21% of the state population). The study also found that immigrants pay proportionate federal and state taxes.

And the Washington Post comes in with a report from Fairfax County that shrugs and says it's impossible to figure out the cost of illegal immigration, anyway, because some services illegal immigrants use — particularly public infrastructure like roads and parks — aren't tailored specifically to them. A county official offers a sage and no doubt well-documented explanation for why we don't need to worry about the burden illegal immigrants pose to libraries: "Our libraries are not being rushed by undocumented aliens looking for bestsellers."

That last study raises the question, how are those cost estimates made? The ones confidently bandied about by both sides of the immigration debate? Many of the authoritative studies are long out of date; others examine some aspect of the cost, or the cost of a population that includes illegal immigrants, but isn't restricted to them alone.

In any case, local impact seems to be what matters. That's the level at which there are disparate cost burdens depending on the place — even if the costs and benefits of illegal immigration tip toward being an overall benefit at the federal level. And it's where counting can be done most accurately, unless you're in Fairfax County.

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