Immigration costs hard to gauge
DENVER ” It’s difficult if not impossible to put a comprehensive price tag on illegal immigrants in Colorado, state legislators learned Wednesday, the day before they were set to begin a special session addressing how to crack down on the controversial issue.
Gov. Bill Owens appeared unexpectedly before the Joint Budget Committee, which held a politically charged hearing about the cost of illegal immigration.
Owens said Colorado should take the lead in battling illegal immigration, despite a lack of aid from the federal government. He suggested using the state driver’s license as a prerequisite for employment in Colorado, saying it is one of the most reliable ways to prove citizenship.
“Right now, it is a very difficult piece of identification to procure if you’re not a citizen,” he said.
Several hours of testimony, often punctured by partisan bickering, yielded little new information or reliable budget numbers. Some witnesses apologetically said they’d have been better prepared with more time.
Owens said he was dismayed local government officials weren’t invited to the committee hearing, so he invited them himself, including Weld District Attorney Ken Buck.
“We’re all operating in the dark; no one has a sign on them that says ‘I’m an illegal immigrant,'” Buck said. “We can’t identify specifically how many illegal immigrants we have.”
State departments were asked to measure how much is spent on those ephemeral illegal immigrants, whose numbers are increasing every year, according to most estimates.
A few state departments spend millions of dollars on illegal immigrants, but they must do so because of state and federal mandates. Other departments can’t measure how much they spend, because if they knew which illegal immigrants were improperly receiving state services, the departments would stop providing those services. Still other departments aren’t allowed to inquire about people’s legal status because of various legal restrictions.
Furthermore, illegal immigrants who receive some state services are also helping offset costs for those services by paying property and sales taxes.
Buck noted one possible cost-savings for Weld, at least for the sheriff’s office.
The county spends about $1.5 million annually to house inmates in other counties because the Weld jail is too full. In the summer months, about 25 percent of the inmates are foreign-born, and of those, 20 percent are here illegally, Buck estimated.
That accounts for most of the overcrowding, which could in turn save that $1.5 million, he said.
Marva Livingston Hammons, director of the state Department of Human Services, said most welfare services are provided only to people who can prove citizenship. Others are required by law regardless of a person’s immigration status. County departments of social services administer most programs.
Hammons estimated the state spends about $3.5 million on illegal immigrants, including the Division of Youth Corrections and emergency aid to needy adults. If the $2 million for the youth corrections division ” which would keep juvenile offenders off the streets ” was kept, and all other services eliminated, the state could save about $1.5 million, Hammons said.
But the department would need to hire new workers to start screening welfare clients to determine their citizenship, she said. The price tag? About $1.5 million.
The special session began Thursday, and at least two dozen bills addressing immigration, state Supreme Court timelines and common-law marriage are expected to be introduced. The session is supposed to last three days.