O.M.B. Study Puts Price Tag on Educating Illegal Immigrants

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Combatants in the politically explosive debate over illegal immigration can now put at least a tentative price tag on the cost of providing education and other social services to immigrants.

A new study, commissioned by the Office of Management and Budget and produced by the Urban Institute, offers what observers said is the first systematic look at what it costs states to provide services to illegal immigrants. It assessed the costs for the seven states most heavily impacted by immigration: Arizona, California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Florida.

It cost those states $3.1 billion to educate some 641,000 undocumented children in fiscal 1993, the study estimates--much more than they spent on incarceration or emergency medical services, the other two areas analyzed.

The study's authors noted, however, that their estimates were likely to overestimate the number of undocumented children in U.S. classrooms and underestimate the cost of teaching them.

About 86 percent of the nation's estimated 3.4 million undocumented aliens live in the states included in the study. That population grows each year by roughly 299,000, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates.

The nearly 200-page report is an outgrowth of an O.M.B. task force created earlier this year.

Since then, several governors have complained about the fiscal impact of illegal immigration, and some states have even sued in an effort to force the federal government to pick up a share of the tab. The report is silent on the subject of federal reimbursement.

Eugene E. Garcia, the director of the office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs and the Education Department's representative on the O.M.B. task force, said that the department will consider the report's findings as it develops its fiscal 1996 budget, but that windfalls are not imminent.

'No Blank Checks'

"O.M.B. has made it clear that there are no blank checks waiting for education" or any other costs, Mr. Garcia said, although the report "will have an impact on whether we want to argue strongly for more money for existing programs" such as bilingual education.

Some immigrant advocates said that they feared the report would fuel anti-immigrant sentiment.

"It's good to take the question out of the hands of the states because they have an interest in exaggerating the numbers," said Cecilia Munoz, an immigration analyst for the National Council of La Raza. "But it also legitimizes the debate about cost, and I don't know if that gets us into a rational debate about immigration."

The study develops a method for estimating costs to states and evaluates states' own estimates.

But the authors warn that the findings can easily be misinterpreted. For example, the study may underestimate the cost of educating undocumented children because its dollar figures are based on states' average per-pupil spending, and it does not assess whether educating an illegal immigrant student is more expensive than educating a nonimmigrant student.

Undocumented students tend to be poor and speak little English, said Rebecca L. Clark, the researcher who did the education analysis.

In addition, the cost of adding one student to a particular school is not necessarily the same as a state's average per-pupil expenditure--especially given that the additional students may bring with them additional state and federal funds.

A Statistical Gap

Generally, the report's estimates on states' education costs were higher for Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Texas than the states' own estimates, roughly equal for New Jersey, and lower than reported by New York and California.

Some of these differences can be explained by methodology. For example, Florida used its limited-English-proficient student population to represent its undocumented student population.

California had used unofficial Census Bureau figures that the agency later discredited. The state has since re-estimated its education cost to be $1.5 billion, much closer to the report's figure of $1.3 billion.

Indeed, a lack of reliable data on the number of undocumented school-age children makes calculating education costs complicated.

Federal law prohibits schools from asking about their students' immigration status. Under a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, students are entitled to public education regardless of their status. And the census does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.

The researchers used 1993 I.N.S. data estimating the number of illegal immigrants in each state and their countries of origin. They then used 1990 census data from each state to look at the age of people from those countries who entered the United States since 1982, a cutoff set because many immigrants who entered before then were granted amnesty in 1986.

Researchers merged the two sets of data to come up with counts of undocumented students, which they checked against enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics and census estimates of all school-age children.

The researchers then calculated costs by multiplying their estimated counts of undocumented students in each state by the state's average per-pupil expenditure.

Copies of "Fiscal Impacts of Undocumented Aliens: Selected Estimates for Seven States" are available for $18.50 each by calling the Urban Institute at (202) 857-8687.

Vol. 14, Issue 03

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