State ties steep costs to illegal immigration

A report that put the public cost at up to $188 million a year brought harsh reaction from immigrant advocates and signaled a key issue in 2006.
Conrad Defiebre, Star Tribune

Last update: December 9, 2005 at 8:06 AM

A new government report that pegs the public cost of illegal immigration in Minnesota at up to $188 million a year was released Thursday, setting the stage for what could be a divisive and pivotal debate in next year's legislative session and election campaign.

The report was commissioned by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who so far has offered no policy proposals related to it. But he and his chief spokesman indicated that such initiatives may not be long in coming.

"Many communities across Minnesota and the country have concerns regarding illegal immigration," the Republican governor said in a news release.

"We need to remember that we are a nation of immigrants and we should support immigration that is legal and orderly," he said. "Unfortunately, the current system is neither and needs to be reformed."

Spokesman Brian McClung added that the administration would have legislative proposals for consideration next year. Meanwhile, he said, Pawlenty is conducting "listening sessions" with a cross-section of Minnesotans, including immigrants.

Reaction from some immigrant advocates was swift and not at all positive.

"It's playing to racism, basically," said Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. " ... I think it is a desperate move. I'm very sad that Governor Pawlenty would go in this direction again."

She recalled that a controversial TV ad calling for specially marked driver's licenses for foreign visitors energized Pawlenty's lagging gubernatorial campaign in 2002. "It really put him over the top," she said. "But it became a basis for harassment of people and gave us no protection against terrorism."

Pawlenty first hinted a policy move on illegal immigration after President Bush addressed the issue last week. Two days later, Pawlenty visited Worthington in southwest Minnesota, a city of 11,000 with a large immigrant population, to discuss the issue with community leaders. This week he held a similar session in Rochester, another city with many immigrants.

"We have heard a broad variety of concerns about education, health care, housing and law enforcement," McClung said. "You cannot justify the current chaotic immigration system by saying it provides cheap labor. It creates an underground economy and opens people up to exploitation."

Thursday's report was produced by the Department of Administration, whose commissioner, Dana Badgerow, called its findings "alarming."

It estimated the number of illegal, or undocumented, immigrants in Minnesota at 80,000 to 85,000, more than the numbers in at least 20 other states. An estimated 17,000 of their children cost public schools $146 million to $158 million to educate in 2004, and another $30 million went to costs for subsidized health care and incarceration for crime, the report said. "In addition, illegal immigrants arguably displace American workers, which contributes to lost jobs and wages," it said.

The report gave no recommendations but noted that legislatures across the country considered nearly 300 bills on immigrant issues this year and passed 47 new laws. "In contrast, the Minnesota Legislature gave very little consideration to the issue during the 2005 session," it added.

Clark, however, cited one such debate this year: a House Republican's bill to offer resident college tuition rates to illegal immigrants. Nine states have adopted that policy, the report said. But Clark said Pawlenty's office blocked the proposal. The report said analysts projected no added cost to the state from the proposal but the report did note a study showing such costs in another state.

McClung declined to comment on Clark's account.

Immigrant contributions

Legislation adopted in 2003 barred illegal immigrants from most health and welfare assistance, except emergency and pregnancy services, to which the report attributed an annual cost of $17.3 million. And the Department of Corrections estimated a cost of $12.8 million for imprisoning 501 illegal aliens in the year ended June 30.

An unknown portion of those costs is offset by taxes paid by illegal immigrants, the report said. About 8,000 file state income tax returns; many others don't, but taxes deducted from their paychecks remain in state coffers.

Focusing on illegal immigrants' costs without counting their contributions doesn't make sense, said Jared Erdmann, co-director of Hacer, a Hispanic research organization in the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He said a Hacer study estimated the buying power of Latinos, believed to make up the bulk of illegals in Minnesota, at $3.1 billion. Migrants, both legal and illegal, have revitalized entire neighborhoods, he added.

Miguel, 35, an undocumented construction worker from Mexico living in Minneapolis whose last name was withheld for privacy reasons, said illegal immigrants contribute to the state economy.

"It doesn't make any sense worrying how much it costs for us to be here," he said Thursday. "We just come to work hard. We're just trying to survive."

Staff Writers Jean Hopfensperger and Myron P. Medcalf contributed to this report.