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Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007 | Despite several caveats and estimates, a San Diego State University report about the costs of illegal immigrants on San Diego County’s government pegged the annual tab at $101 million.
But when SDSU demographics professor John Weeks presented his calculation to the county’s Board of Supervisors Tuesday, the number got twisted. Supervisor Bill Horn, who has campaigned on an anti-illegal immigration platform, said the money was being stolen out of taxpayers’ pockets.
Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said the number was the result of a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that weighed both the positives and negatives that undocumented immigrants bring to the region. She blamed “a couple of news accounts” for saying the $40,000 study had ignored immigrants’ positive contributions to the economy.
Horn and Slater-Price were both wrong, even by the professor’s own admission.
“Whether or not there is a net cost or gain is the subject of debate,” the report states. “… It is probably impossible to ever know the exact impact of undocumented immigrants.”
Weeks’ study had a specific target: Figuring out how much illegal immigrants cost the county in 2006. The county performed 42 autopsies on immigrants who died while crossing the border. It provided health care to pregnant women in the country without papers. It immunized preschoolers for influenza.
The study estimated how much those services cost, but ignored the benefits that illegal immigrants bring, such as inexpensive labor, payroll taxes and sales tax revenue. And the study ignored those benefits because supervisors didn’t ask for them to be analyzed. The report provided a limited view of illegal immigration’s local effects.
While county taxpayers may see some of their property taxes diverted to paying for illegal immigrants, those same taxpayers reap benefits elsewhere. Many immigrants pay into Social Security but do not receive it; they spend money in local businesses; they have payroll taxes withheld.
“It’s misleading,” said Gordon Hanson, director of the Center on Pacific Economies at University of California, San Diego. “No economist wants to know just what the impact on the revenue side is. You want to know what the net impact is.”
With an academic analysis in hand, the supervisors had an authored study they said they would take to Washington to bolster their case for getting an increase in federal reimbursements.
Weeks defended the scope of his analysis, which he completed with the assistance of David Eisenberg, a former Chula Vista police officer.
“We were not asked to address the benefits,” Weeks said. “We did what the county asked us to do.”
Professors at universities across the region said that before accepting the contract, Weeks could have more carefully considered who was requesting the study and how the findings would be used and potentially manipulated. Weeks could have insisted on a broader analysis, they said, or simply passed on the job.
“Good university researchers are not good German soldiers — only following orders,” said Steve Erie, a UCSD political science professor. “Your reputation is the single most important thing that you have. I certainly would never have taken that county contract under the terms offered. Particularly from Bill Horn. You already know what conclusions he wants you to reach. That’s not research. That’s using the university, contaminating the brand name. You don’t do that.”
For college professors throughout the region, consulting jobs provide a sometimes lucrative income source outside the classroom. Some professors choose to spend more time teaching; others seek out contractual work for government agencies, economic development groups and businesses. UCSD permits its faculty to do consulting one day a week during the academic year; summers can be devoted to contract work.
Richard Carson, a UCSD economics professor, has worked with several federal and state agencies on contract. He has analyzed the economic impact of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and other environmental disasters. Carson said his reputation allows him the luxury of choosing what contracts he takes on.
“A lot of times they’ll walk,” he said of government agencies. “They either want to keep too much control or they won’t put in enough money. I’m in the enviable position that I don’t care if they walk. But a lot of people need the money more.”
Carson said professors should be wary of political minefields when taking on contract work. But many aren’t, he said, because they assume the work is legitimate.
“It’s a sad thing if he got himself used,” Carson said. “It’s a worse thing for the public if a nontrivial amount of money was spent to make a political point. He’s done just enough stuff in the immigration area that I suspect he should’ve been a little more cognizant of what’s going on.”
James Gerber, an SDSU economics professor and director of the school’s Center for Latin American Studies, said he was disappointed in his colleague’s study. He said the analysis sheds little light on the economic impacts of illegal immigrants and instead reveals “that people are pissed off about immigration and the county is trying to leverage that in some way.”
“The other lesson of this is that we’re all whores,” Gerber said. “Academicians are like anyone else. If there’s a good payday ahead for doing some analysis, a lot of people will go for it regardless of how it subtracts from or contributes to a debate.”
Other academics said they’d give Weeks the benefit of the doubt. David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at University of San Diego, said he wouldn’t judge Weeks or his study. Shirk said he had not seen the analysis, but spoke generally about the subject.
“If you want to make conclusions with one half of the equation, you’re going to get a result that doesn’t reflect reality,” Shirk said. “But don’t blame the researcher necessarily. Blame the people who commissioned the study.”
Shirk said academics do not need to be neutral. They may inevitably choose sides as they inform themselves about the world around them, he said.
“That’s fine,” he said. “But when academics are bought and sold by political interests — that presents real hazards.”