Illegal Immigration's Cost Is Hard to Count

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The cost of delivering government services to illegal immigrants in Fairfax County is all but impossible to determine, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said in a report made public yesterday.

That's because no one knows how many undocumented immigrants live in the county and because many of the services -- such as libraries, parks, public transit and roads -- are provided to everyone and not designed for a specific subset of the population.

The only direct cost the county said it was able to determine was in the sheriff's office, which will spend about $3.8 million this fiscal year housing undocumented immigrants in the county jail.

The report is the third produced this year in Northern Virginia after elected officials, under pressure from residents, asked their staffs to study the impact of illegal immigration on government services. It is also the third in which officials reported that quantifying the local costs of illegal immigration is difficult, at best, and that federal law requires them to provide an array of basic services, for the protection of life or safety, to all residents, regardless of status.

This year, Prince William County Executive Craig S. Gerhart told lawmakers that he could not give them "an accurate or dependable answer . . . regarding the total cost to serve the illegal population." Loudoun County administrators delivered essentially the same message to their Board of Supervisors in September.

The Prince William and Loudoun supervisors, however, have passed resolutions to deny what services they can to some illegal immigrants, such as those who are homeless, elderly or addicted to drugs.

Griffin's report was delivered in response to an inquiry from Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), who said he was getting numerous questions from constituents about services provided to undocumented immigrants and their cost. "Quite frankly," Frey wrote in a letter, "I am also getting many constituents demanding that the Fairfax Board of Supervisors adopt a Prince William County type resolution."

The Fairfax board, led by Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), has resisted calls from Prince William and Loudoun officials to pass a similar measure. Connolly has said that immigration remains a federal responsibility and that he wants the county to focus on illegal behavior, not immigration status.

Griffin's report conforms closely to the terms set by the chairman. Griffin said that where federal law requires the county to determine immigration status, it will continue to do so. Otherwise, it will not. "The county is not responsible for nor presently staffed to enforce federal laws as they relate to immigration violations," he wrote.

One central issue, Griffin said, is that there is no reliable method for counting the number of illegal immigrants. The available national estimates don't differentiate immigrants in various categories, such as those with "temporary protected status," who are legal and eligible for services.

The report broke the issue into three parts. The first category focuses on programs that federal law prohibits the county from offering to illegal immigrants. These include food stamps, Medicaid and public housing. The second lists services related to protection of life and safety. Officials involved in those areas -- including police, fire and rescue, health services, child protective services, and juvenile and domestic relations court officials -- do not investigate immigration status.

The report also lists a category of what it calls "universal access" services that enhance the overall quality of community life, such as libraries and parks. These are available to all residents.

Griffin did not address the cost of educating illegal immigrant children in the county's schools, citing a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that upholds their right to enroll.

Connolly said yesterday that the report should refute the notion that the county is, of its own volition, spending countless millions of dollars on the needs of undocumented immigrants.

"The county's position is to deny services when we are required to do so. And that's a fairly lengthy list," he said.

Asked about the cost of illegal immigrants using county services and facilities available to everyone, Connolly said that was not the core of the issue. "Our libraries are not being rushed by undocumented aliens looking for bestsellers." He added that illegal immigrants "are not frequent consumers of county services, for a lot of different reasons." The main one is fear of detection, he said.

Frey said he was reasonably satisfied with the report. "Obviously, the big costs are education and health care. You don't need a detailed study to figure that out," he said.

"But there's nothing we can do about that, and that's important for people to understand. Until the feds do something, we have no choice," Frey said.

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