Anxiety On Costs Of Illegal Residents

Anxiety On Costs Of Illegal Residents
Pr. William Board Wants Impact On County Studied
By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006; B01

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors, alarmed at the financial impact of illegal immigration, has called for a wide-ranging study to determine how much money the problem is costing the county government.

The board’s request for a staff study is unusual. Neither the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments nor the National Council of La Raza, a leading national Hispanic civil rights group, said they could recall any recent studies by local governments attempting to assess the cost of illegal immigration.

The supervisors’ demand for the study signals that illegal immigration will be an urgent topic for board members heading into 2007, when they are up for reelection. Supervisors say a wave of immigrants is driving up costs for schools, social services, health care and law enforcement.

As a sign of the board’s frustration over illegal immigration, one supervisor wants to go so far as to demand that the federal government reimburse the county for the additional costs.

“By putting a number on the cost, this gives us an opportunity to push back on the federal government and say, ‘Look what you are doing to us on the local government level,’ ” said Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville), who proposed the study. “I mean, it is the federal government’s responsibility to regulate commerce. They are the ones who are supposed to secure the borders.”

County Executive Craig S. Gerhart is supposed to complete the report by Jan. 16. Covington said he will then propose sending a bill to the federal government for the full amount.

Prince William, where about 20 percent of residents are foreign-born, joins a number of local governments grappling with a wave of new residents, many of them illegal immigrants. The nearby city of Manassas has been trying to prevent illegal immigrants from clustering in single-family homes. Herndon also has approved measures aimed at deterring illegal immigrants from living or working there.

In Prince William, the development boom has attracted undocumented workers looking for jobs. Those workers’ children have enrolled in county schools, and the families have used county social services and health-care facilities.

“I can tell you that my constituents are very angry about this issue,” said Covington, who also recently pushed through a one-year freeze on new-home construction. “I think they are going to be demanding more and more as time goes on that the appropriate measures are being taken.”

At the urging of Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), the study will include the impact on the police department and jail and court system. Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) requested that the county’s hospitals and health clinics also be reviewed.

“Illegal immigration is a big problem in Prince William County,” Caddigan said. “We want to have a solution to it and do whatever it takes to solve it. Nobody is moving on it. The federal government is not doing anything to work on illegal immigration. It is only getting worse.”

County staff members have told the supervisors that it could be difficult to meet the Jan. 16 deadline because of the holidays and because they are immersed in preparing the next budget.

“This is a very complex request covering several agencies,” said county spokeswoman Liz Bahrns, adding that agencies have been given two weeks to respond. “Given the scope of this task, we would expect it to take every bit of the two weeks to pull the figures together . . . or perhaps longer. We will, however, have a response . . . by Jan. 16.”

Covington, who does not have an estimate for what he thinks illegal immigration is costing the county, said he is serious about asking the federal government to reimburse the county. But he said he is realistic enough to know that the county will probably never get a penny.

“I really think they should pay, but it is more symbolic,” he said.

He said his constituents are angry because they are worried about possible cuts in county services or tax increases, based on falling revenue from the slower housing market. Residents have told Covington they are concerned that their taxes are paying for the education and health care of illegal workers who pay no taxes.

“You know, as far as educating the children of illegal immigrants, they are paying the full burden of that,” Covington said. “It really boils down to an accountability issue. I don’t think people inherently want to hurt other people. They don’t mind helping other people, but they want to know what the cost is and want to know that a set of rules apply to everyone and not just some people.”

Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza, the country’s oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights organization, said she welcomed the attempt by Prince William to study the issue — “assuming that it is based on sound methodology and it is unbiased.”

Waslin cited a study released by the comptroller of Texas this month that reported that illegal immigrants had a positive financial impact on the state treasury but that they were costing counties hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

“The study showed that the tax money was going to the state and the counties were not getting any of those tax revenues,” she said. “So the counties end up footing the cost.”

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