Sunday, February 21, 2010

Illegal migrants costly to San Bernardino County

Illegal migrants costly to San Bernardino County
Total spent on illegal immigrants elusive
Stephen Wall, Staff Writer
Posted: 02/20/2010 02:50:10 PM PST

Four years ago, a group of concerned citizens expressed outrage at the cost of illegal immigration to San Bernardino County taxpayers.

The price tag for six county departments to provide services to illegal immigrants was more than $38 million a year, the county Grand Jury found.

Most of the money was spent on emergency health care and law enforcement-related services for illegal immigrants.

But that was just a fraction of the tab.

Fourteen other unnamed county departments had no idea of their costs for illegal immigrant services. If those departments had provided numbers, the bill would have been substantially higher, the Grand Jury's report stated.

The Grand Jury recommended that the county immediately require all departments to start tracking their costs.

The information should be made available to the public as well as to state and federal lawmakers who would take action to solve the immigration crisis if they knew the true cost of the problem, according to the report released in 2006.

In response, the Board of Supervisors directed all departments to track the costs, but not all of them have been complying, officials said.

County supervisors want to find out what happened.

"The public has a right to know who's receiving the services and whether or not they're entitled to them," said Supervisor Neil Derry. "These are dollars that are being used by people who don't belong here that either could be used to provide services to legal citizens or returned to them in the form of lower taxes."

Supervisor Josie Gonzales also wants to know why some departments have not followed through on the board's direction.

"The fact that we continue to incur costs for services that are extremely difficult to recover funds for is of great concern to me," Gonzales said.

Supervisor Paul Biane said he will ask Chief Administrative Officer Greg Devereaux to look into the matter. But he isn't optimistic that tracking the information will make much of a difference.

"It would be great to know," Biane said, "but at the end of the day, I don't think it will mean more revenue to the county of San Bernardino to support us for the services we provide."

Brad Kuiper, who was foreman of the Grand Jury at the time, said county officials should be complaining louder.

"It's very frustrating to me and the Grand Jury," said Kuiper, a 71-year-old Apple Valley resident. "It's all taxpayer money and we don't seem to have a vote on any of this. Until it comes from the grass roots, it's obvious that none of these people that we've elected to office are going to do anything about any of this stuff."

The county is mandated by state and federal law to provide services to illegal immigrants.

Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Colton, must treat every person that enters the emergency room, regardless of income or immigration status.

The hospital's health care cost for illegal immigrants was nearly $9 million in 2006. Today, that number is about $18 million, said Frank Arambula, the hospital's chief financial officer.

The hospital gets back about $5 million from Section 1011 of the Medicare program, which helps reimburse hospitals for emergency services provided to illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants make up about 1,400 emergency room patients a year, which equates to about 5 percent of total admissions, Arambula said.

"Is it a strain on our resources to provide these services? No," Arambula said. "Our mission is to take care of the sick who can't pay for health care. If someone doesn't have treatment, they could potentially infect others."

The county pays a hefty price to provide other services to illegal immigrants.

The District Attorney's Office spends about $9 million a year to prosecute cases against illegal immigrants charged with crimes, according to the 2006 Grand Jury report.

District attorney's spokeswoman Susan Mickey said she could not provide an updated cost.

"No one here has any idea where that ($9 million) figure came from," Mickey said. "We do not track cases by immigration status. We do not track by ethnicity or race or anything. If they break the law, they're prosecuted, whether they're legal or illegal."

The county Public Defender's Office also spends $9 million a year to provide criminal defense for illegal immigrants who can't afford their own lawyers, the report said.

County spokesman David Wert could not provide an updated cost.

Wert said the numbers provided to the Grand Jury were one-time estimates provided by the county administrative office at the Grand Jury's request. The county does not track costs for the Public Defender's Office because the county must provide services and there is no reimbursement from the federal government, Wert said.

Tracking costs is also extremely difficult because determining immigration status is a separate legal process, Wert said.

The Sheriff's Department does track the cost to jail illegal immigrants. Sheriff's employees undergo special training by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine the immigration status of inmates for purposes of reimbursement.

In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the county spent $15.8 million to jail illegal immigrants but only got back $2.2 million from the federal government.

"It has a huge impact on the county and especially the Sheriff's Department budget," said sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Beavers. "It also taxes our jail population."

In recent years, the department has left more vacant positions unfilled and cut back on some crime-prevention and community programs as a result of not being fully reimbursed for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants, Beavers said.

For the first time, the county is seeking federal reimbursement for probation services provided to juvenile illegal immigrants. County officials are requesting $5.5 million this year to cover that cost.

Assemblyman Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, blamed the federal government and Democrats in the state Legislature for not dealing with the immigration crisis.

"They don't want to take this seriously," said Knight, whose district includes Victorville and Adelanto. "Unfortunately, counties like Los Angeles and San Bernardino are taking the brunt of a lot of this cost. How many of the basic services we provide are being stripped away because we're spending our money on illegal immigrants?"

Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea, said citizens deserve to know how many of their tax dollars are spent on illegal immigrants.

"It's not the state's job to close down our borders," said Miller, whose district includes Chino and Chino Hills. "It's the federal government's, and we're not doing it. If we're unwilling to do our job, we should at least pick up the cost of the burden we're placing on our states."

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