Texas Official's Report Ignites a New Border Conflict

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

It is a Texas showdown, a war of words over illegal immigration at the border.

State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn fired the first shot with a recent report that, for some, says the unthinkable: Illegal immigrants not only pay their fair share in taxes, but they are also good for the economy.

"The absence of 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in Texas . . .would have been a loss to our gross state product of $17.7 billion," Strayhorn said in a statement. Overall, the report said, illegal immigrants put about $420 million more into state coffers than they take out.

Strayhorn billed the report as the first ever by a state finance official, a crucial step forward. But for Texans who believe hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are overrunning their state, the report is a misstep.

State Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler), who introduced legislation that would bar Texas from recognizing children born to illegal immigrants in American hospitals as U.S. citizens, called the report "outrageous."

Dan Stein, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which supports measures to deter illegal immigration, ripped the report as a composite of "design flaws, assumptions and conclusions in direct contrast to our years of exhaustive studies on this issue, and to our most recent Texas report, which shows illegal aliens cost Texas taxpayers $3.7 billion annually."

In these times of tough proposals against illegal immigration in Congress and huge protest marches by illegal immigrant workers and their supporters, it is not surprising that the comptroller's report caused a stir.

An official state document that contradicts the idea that immigrants are a financial burden can carry considerable weight as Democrats take control of Congress, and as potential candidates consider their options in the 2008 presidential election.

Supporters of illegal immigrants embraced the report. John Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it "confirms what MALDEF and immigration experts have long known -- we all benefit from the contributions of immigrants."

The Texas study may be the first by a state, but it is hardly the first of its kind. Previous studies on the financial impact of illegal immigrants have been undertaken by a number of groups, including the nonpartisan Urban Institute and the Center for Immigration Studies.

Undocumented workers in the Washington area, according to the Urban Institute, pay a hefty share of taxes, but they contribute less than they should because many are paid off the books and do not file yearly tax forms. A report by the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration, said that illegal-immigrant households imposed $26 billion in costs on the federal government while paying $16 billion in taxes. This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities raided meatpacking plants in six states in search of illegal immigrants they said were using illegally obtained Social Security numbers.

Early in the year, the House tried to crack down on the immigration problem with a tough proposal that would have turned about 12 million illegal immigrants in the country into instant felons.

Opponents said they went too far, and millions of illegal immigrants and their supporters marched in Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Phoenix and other cities.

That is the environment that Strayhorn stepped into with her report and its bold introduction: "The Comptroller's report estimates that undocumented immigrants in Texas generate more taxes and other revenue than the state spends on them."

Drawing on estimates from a report by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, the report said 1.4 million to 1.6 million illegal immigrants live in Texas, about 14 percent of the U.S. total.

Texas has no state income tax, so immigrants pay sales and property taxes, along with various state fees. "Undocumented immigrants produced $1.58 billion in state revenues, which exceeded the $1.16 billion in state services they received," Strayhorn reported.

Strayhorn, an unsuccessful candidate for governor in the last election, favors a guest-worker program, prompting criticism from opponents who say her report was motivated by politics.

FAIR said the report plays down the impact of illegal immigration by not counting the children of illegal immigrants who had become U.S. citizens. In a previous report, FAIR estimated that Texas schools paid more than $1.7 billion to educate illegal immigrants and the legal children of illegal immigrants in 2003-2004.

"This report is a slap in the face to anyone with common sense," Stein said.

Berman deferred to more conservative reports, such as one from the Lone Star Foundation in Austin. It says illegal immigrants drain $4.5 billion from the Texas economy, mostly in health-care costs.

"Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and the public hospital in Houston, has a 70 percent birth rate from illegal aliens," Berman said.

Trasviña of MALDEF said he hopes Strayhorn's report will compel other politicians to "reject divisive legislation" by Berman and others "aimed at forcing undocumented immigrants further into the shadows."

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