The county Board of Supervisors set in motion Tuesday a plan to study the costs of illegal immigration on county coffers on the back of Supervisor Bill Horn’s assertion that undocumented workers’ usage of health care, law enforcement and other services is bleeding the county dry.

But experts on immigration economics doubted the efficacy of Horn’s proposal, saying it will only paint half the picture because it won’t measure the benefits undocumented workers bring such as cheap labor for local businesses or increased tax contributions. They called the proposed study “ludicrous” and “nonsensical.”

County health officials, meanwhile, said undocumented workers don’t strain county programs because the county requires documentation proving they are in the country legally. Such documentation could be provided fraudulently, but measuring the successful illicit applications would seemingly be difficult.

Horn has become increasingly outspoken about illegal immigration recently in the midst of an emotional national debate over immigration.

“The taxpayers of San Diego are losing services; they are not getting 100 percent because something’s wrong somewhere,” he said. “We’ve got a leak in the bucket and it’s not just a dribble, it’s a large amount of money.”

Among other things, the county finances public health services, county jails, alcohol and drug treatment centers and child protective services. Horn believes undocumented immigrants abuse all of these services.

In many cases, the county can receive federal reimbursements if it can prove that it’s spending money directly on undocumented residents. The federal government has responsibility for securing the nation’s borders. Many programs exist to grant federal money to areas that bear the costs of illegal immigration.

That’s why Horn said the Board of Supervisors has asked the county’s administrative officer to look into the feasibility of studying the fiscal impact of undocumented immigrants in San Diego.

Gordon Hanson, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego and an expert on Mexican immigration, said a study of the economic impact of immigrants makes perfect sense.

However, Hanson said, Horn’s exercise will tell San Diegans very little about the true cost or benefit of undocumented immigrants living here because the supervisor has said he won’t study the possible economic benefits undocumented immigrants bring the county.

“It’s a nonsensical exercise,” Hanson said.

All the study would do is produce a very rough estimate of how many undocumented immigrants live in San Diego, Hanson said. That’s of limited use, he said, because many studies have already accomplished that goal.

Jim Gerber, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at San Diego State University, said he doesn’t think a study to work out the impact of undocumented workers on county services can be done.

“There’s things you just basically can’t count, and there’s things you can basically just half-count,” Gerber said. “The notion that there’s anything approximating a consensus estimate of what the real costs and benefits are is ludicrous.”

Measuring the impact of any segment of the population is difficult, Gerber said, but doing so for undocumented immigrants is virtually impossible. Calculating the strain undocumented workers place on local services is also a short-sighted way of assessing their impact, he said, because most undocumented workers pay federal taxes and social security payments, which is all money that trickles down to the local level.

Despite their legal standing, many undocumented immigrants are able to gain employment using false documentation. Like any other “above the table” worker, undocumented immigrants usually have federal and state income taxes, as well as social security fees, deducted from their paychecks.

Gerber said any study that’s instigated by the county Board of Supervisors is therefore a “waste of time.”

That doesn’t trouble Horn. He said there must be some way of measuring how much county money is being spent on undocumented immigrants. It should be a simple case of gathering the figures, he said.

“I think if the military can keep track of the number of people in various nations, I think it behooves us at the county of San Diego to figure this out,” he said.

Health officials said that all county health services require applicants to show that they are in the country legally. That means an applicant must show documentation, which is not the case for many federally funded health programs. The federal programs are also provided via the county health clinics.

Anybody who does not have the correct documentation must pay for county-administered services upfront, said Joe Davis, president and chief executive officer of NMA Comprehensive Health Center in downtown San Diego, and supervisor of three county-funded clinics.

“It’s just like any other situation,” he said. “You walk in a grocery store and you ask for a bottle of pop, if you have the money, fine. If you don’t, and you want it on credit, then you’ve got to prove worthiness or eligibility for it.”

Just as illegal immigrants can use forged documents to enter the workplace and be taxed, they can also use such documents to utilize county health services. There may in fact be such a strain, however measuring such a strain would be nearly impossible. If officials there knew who was using forged documents, they likely wouldn’t provide them with county services.

Horn said he’s been told in numerous e-mails that county nurses and county health clinics are being overstretched by so many undocumented immigrants lining up for services.

But none of the health officials interviewed for this story said undocumented workers are affecting the cost or quality of their service.

Jack Johns is the chief operating officer of Community Health Systems Inc., a nonprofit that manages Fallbrook Family Health Center in North County. He’s been in the local healthcare business for more than 60 years, and he said there’s no more strain on his health clinics from undocumented immigrants now than there has been in the past. Johns estimates that 6 percent of the people that come through his rural clinic are undocumented, but stressed that none of them can sign up for county programs.

“There is an impact, but I don’t think they’re preventing anybody from being treated,” Johns said.

Horn said there is still a need to get an official report commissioned that lays out whether or not undocumented immigrants are negatively impacting county services. Healthcare isn’t the only issue, he said. Illegal immigration also puts stress on law enforcement and the penal system, and he wants to tie down some figures that he can call on when he needs them.

“If the answer comes back to me and it says zero, then it’s zero,” he said.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or, submit a letter to the editor.

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