Friday, July 14, 2006 | The frenzy surrounding the illegal immigration issue better lends itself to news coverage than policy changes. It is a big issue for talk shows and 24-hour news channels and a petty issue for real people.

The media has done a great deal to assert that it does matter but little to clarify why it matters or how addressing it will improve our country. Someone following the debate would know a great deal about how agitated protesters get about the issue but very little about the actual cost and benefits of making a change. People involved in the debate state that it’s about racism and discrimination or about terrorism and keeping America American. But whatever activists say about the topic, for us average taxpayers it is simply a question of what we’re asked to spend and what, in return, we’ll get.

Keeping in mind that the numbers are an estimate, we can start with the status quo. We now spend $11 billion a year “protecting our border.” That funds activities that stop about 600,000 people a year at the border and apprehend about 150,000 more inside our border, effectively intercepting about 750,000 a year. But each year the population of illegal immigrants increases by about 500,000 and is now at about 7 to 8 million, comprising between 2 to 3 percent of our population. So, we spend $11 billion a year and still 40 percent of those trying to illegally enter our country succeed.

So, what does it cost us to have 40 percent successfully sneaking in?

The immigration debate assumes that the cost of illegal immigrants is obvious. It is not. We have to speculate about the cost. Illegal immigrants coming across for jobs clearly cost Americans because they take away jobs; they also clearly benefit Americans because they lower costs. They clearly cost Americans because they use our schools and hospitals; they clearly benefit Americans because, once educated by our schools and healed by our hospitals, they are more productive. They clearly cost Americans because they are less likely to pay taxes; they clearly benefit Americans because even those who pay taxes are less likely to step forward to claim benefits or refunds, afraid that higher levels of scrutiny might result in their deportation.

But let’s assume that for every 10 illegal immigrants living here, one has an unpaid medical bill of $120,000 and two are here for free K-12 education, at a cost of about $6,000 a year per student. And let’s further assume that the economic stimulus of extra immigrants (which we would assume to be positive if they were here as tourists or on a work visa) is zero. That is, even though they are working here, buying groceries, renting apartments, etc., all this economic activity has a net effect of zero. So, on average each illegal immigrant costs us nearly $15,000 ($120,000 for the one in the hospital +12,000 for the two in school = $132,000 total, divided by 10 in the group = $13,200 each, rounding up to about $15,000).

That’s probably generously pessimistic.

Yet we spend about $15,000 for each immigrant we successfully stop: $11 billion divided by 750,000 caught at or over the border equals nearly $15,000 per immigrant intercepted. So, how much would we pay to stop the next 500,000 – the 500,000 who successfully elude detection each year?

Given that we’re not already catching these 500,000, we might reasonably conclude that they are harder to catch than the 750,000 we are catching. This makes sense. Everything hits a point at which it costs increasingly more to get more. If you wanted to hire all the high school kids in an area, asking them to drop out of school to work full time for you, you’d likely be able to hire the first 10 percent for minimum wage. Hiring the last 10 percent would not only be expensive – they’d likely demand at least 10 times what you paid the first 10 percent – but potentially impossible, given that some kids would simply refuse to drop out of high school no matter what you offered.

In any case, you’d reach a point at which it simply wasn’t reasonable to keep raising wages in order to hire more kids. Given that governments can ignore ordinary cost-benefit analyses, they can break past this point of good investment without so much as a backwards glance, enriching government contractors while impoverishing ordinary taxpayers, steadily increasing costs without increasing benefits.

I’m going to propose that to halve the percentage who successfully elude capture, we’d have to double the money we spend to catch them. So, instead of $11 billion to get all but 40 percent, we would spend $22 billion to get all but 20 percent (or spend $44 billion to get all but 10 percent). Even this might be optimistic. In Los Angeles, police make arrests in only about a third of the murders and get convictions in only about 95 percent of the arrests, which means that about 70 percent of murderers elude capture. With this as a point of comparison, it may be very optimistic to think that we can halve the number of illegal immigrants who elude capture, regardless of how much we increase spending. Thirty to 40 percent who elude capture may be the lowest we can get no matter what we spend.

But assuming that we can increase spending and increase the number intercepted, each additional illegal alien is more expensive to catch. Our first 750,000 intercepted costs $15,000 each. If we halve the number who elude capture from 500,000 to 250,000, but double the budget in order to do that, we’re now spending $44,000 each for this next 250,000. If we did it again, doubling our budget from $22 billion to $44 billion and halving the numbers that evade capture from 250,000 to 125,000, we’d now be spending $176,000 each. Now, any intelligent reader can (and should) quibble about how rapidly costs would actually increase and how rapidly we’d increase the number caught. But in order to agree to fund escalation of the program, you should assume that it cost more to have them here than it does to catch them. When that cost is about $15,000 each, this assumption seems plausible. But if that cost escalates to $20,000 each – much less $200,000 each – this assumption becomes harder to defend. Suddenly, the fuzzy – even questionable – cost of having illegal immigrants here simply does not hold up against the clear costs of intercepting more.

Is it likely that we’ll spend more on protecting the border? At $11 billion a year, it is already double the amount spent on either the National Science Foundation or the Army Corp of Engineers (the agency that did not have enough money to shore up New Orleans levies) and more than the $7.5 billion we spend on the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet if the media and politicians stir up enough hysteria about the topic, we’re likely to significantly increase spending in spite of record deficits and questionable benefit.

What is perhaps most frightening about the debate on immigration is how casually it has been linked to a terrorist threat. The last time our media and politicians got excited about an issue presumably linked to terrorism, the last time they forgot their duty to demand cost-benefit analysis, we found ourselves spending $100 billion and 1,000 lives a year to occupy a country where the annual GDP was only $22 billion before our invasion. And neither the media nor politicians have yet to clearly show the link between that clear cost and the unclear benefit to our nation in terms of increased safety from terrorism.

If we spend more on immigration, people will clearly benefit. People clearly benefited when we spent more on the occupation of Iraq. But what is not clear is that the average tax payer benefits. Government contractors and government employees will do well as more money is spent on this issue. Media hype over a controversial topic like war, terrorism, or illegal immigration may do a great deal for ratings but its positive impact for the average citizen is, at best, mixed.

Before getting sucked into acting on the debate about immigration, citizens should demand that the media and politicians working so hard to make this a big issue clearly present reasonable estimates of the costs and benefits of the changes they propose. I don’t pretend that the numbers presented here are more than conjecture – but they do tell a story whose general outline needs to be addressed.

It will cost more to catch more illegal immigrants and that cost is likely to escalate.

Let our media and politicians shoulder the burden of proof that the proposals they would sell us are reasonably linked to benefits that we all would enjoy. The burden of proof for the cost-benefit analysis is not with us, the consumer – it lies with the salespeople, the media and politicians, who most obviously benefit from increased focus on it.

And in this we have a breakdown. The media seems to show more interest in ratings than our nation’s future. For this reason, it obsesses over issues that promise little in the way of genuine progress but a great deal in terms of attention and outrage. Sadly, politicians wanting media exposure and resultant votes make the same tradeoff, doing far more to create a polarized nation than a prosperous nation.

Ron Davison works as a business consultant and lives in Chula Vista, a city that lies halfway between San Diego and Tijuana. E-mail him at, or send a letter to the editor.

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