Experts Debate Economic Realities Of Illegal Immigration

POSTED: 4:05 pm PDT September 12, 2006
UPDATED: 6:23 pm PDT September 12, 2006

SAN DIEGO -- It is estimated that more than 11 million illegal immigrants are now living in the U.S.

Their future and rights in this country are hotly debated and have sparked rallies and congressional hearings.

Inside San Diego’s local jails, Homeland Security agents screen inmates looking for illegal immigrants.

“A large number, about a third of the foreign born people our agents interviewed, entered this country illegally," said Michael Magee of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It turns out to be 400 inmates each month, according to Magee.

Supervisor Bill Horn said the cost to arrest, jail and prosecute them is $50 million a year.

That is one snapshot, but what about the whole economic picture?

What is the value of the work illegal immigrants do? What about the purchases they make in this country?

Figures around the debate vary wildly. One chain e-mail said two-thirds of all births in Los Angeles are to illegal immigrants. Another article claims illegal immigrants are not a major drain on hospitals.

"I heard today an estimated 50 percent of students in Vista's school system are illegal immigrants," said Mike Spencer of the Vista Citizens Brigade.

Spencer founded the Vista Citizens Brigade to track people who hire day laborers.

"In terms of taxes, they're not really paying their weight,” said Spencer.

Spencer’s wife, Claudia, a legal immigrant from Mexico, agreed.

"If you say I'm illegal, you get everything for your children, free food, school, education, everything, that is not right, that is not fair," said Claudia Spencer.

There are common beliefs that illegal immigrants are flooding emergency rooms and are overcrowding classrooms.

However, the truth is, many people do not know the exact statistics to back those claims.

School districts and hospitals are not allowed to ask about a person’s legal status.

10News received the same response from state officials, San Diego County officials and city education departments. They all said they had no idea how many students are in this country illegally.

The California Hospital Association said it could only guess regarding the effects of illegal immigration.

Last year, nearly $6.5 billion worth of medical services went unpaid. The group said it guessed 10 percent of that was due to illegal immigrants, totaling to what they estimate as $650 million.

"The media enjoys reporting a number, but the fact is there is no consensus anywhere as to what the costs and benefits are,” said San Diego State University professor Jim Gerber.

Gerber said it is a hidden economy.

"There are a number of taxes immigrants pay, that we’re not able to add up," said Gerber.

"This is finally the paper that makes me legal," said Marianne Saltiel.

Saltiel was an illegal immigrant for 10 years, paying property taxes on a million-dollar home in Mission Hills.

"I owned my houses, never abused the system and I'm not on welfare. My kids went to private schools," said Saltiel.

Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee said he also believed there is no reliable evidence.

"I think it has become an impossible question because it is an issue that has become politicized,” said Ramirez.

“You don’t have to die to go to heaven. Heaven is the United States,” said Claudia Spencer.