Could immigration reform bankrupt local governments?

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    Immigration reform advocates gather outside the Senate Judiciary Committee as they wait to attend a committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform legislation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    What will happen if, after the immigration reform bill passes, all those in the country illegally come out of the shadows and turn to local public services?

    All 11 million? And they were to rely on local services during the proposed 13-year-long pathway to citizenship?

    In California, especially Los Angeles, public officials are concerned.

    With local budgets already stretched thin, officials are worried that a continuous run on public services will drive some of those counties and cities into the same financial ruin that has claimed the cities of Stockton and San Bernardino in recent years—bankruptcy.

    “The one thing that’s really clear as day is that the federal government is going to be protecting itself against costs, and we’re going to be left holding the bag,” warns Mark Tajima, an analyst with the Los Angeles County chief administrative office.

    There is special concern in Los Angeles where the county is home to an estimated 1.1 million people in the country illegally, one-tenth of the nation’s total—the biggest concentration of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

    The cost could run into the billions of dollars, and its impact is likely to be felt well outside Los Angeles.

    “This is now a 50-state issue,” says Sheri Steisel, senior federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Everybody has a stake in this. For states like California and New York, there is the potential of a lot of people coming to the state and local government for assistance.”

    “Just because the federal government has decided not to provide access to federal benefit programs does not mean that the need goes away.”

    Concern over immigration reform costs is growing

    A controversial report from the conservative Heritage Foundation earlier this month claims that the immigration reform bill will cost the government $5.3 trillion.

    The concern over potential costs is so serious that local officials want Congress to create a special fund to help cover the expense or to make applicants for legal status eligible for federal benefits sooner.

    In 1986, in the last big immigration reform legislation signed by President Reagan, Congress bailed out local counties with a $4-billion allocation.

    An estimated 720,000 of the 2.7 million immigrants granted amnesty nationwide as a result of the 1986 immigration reform lived in Los Angeles County.

    Since then, officials say that Los Angeles County has been spending roughly $600 million a year on health care for immigrants in the country illegally.

    Last week, Los Angeles County officials warned of a “major cost shift” likely to burden state and local governments from the proposed legislation—and asked for federal aid to help cover those costs.

    The bipartisan immigration bill that the Senate Judiciary Committee is debating would allow people now in the country without legal status to become eligible for provisional status if they pay fees, fines and taxes.

    Legal residency can be gained 10 years after the border is declared secure, and those who had been in the country illegally would be eligible for citizenship after 13 years.

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