Las Vegas Tackles Local Immigration Reform

In our regular feature, Dispatches, Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Frank Geary weighs the costs and benefits of immigrants in Las Vegas.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for our weekly series Dispatches, where we check in with reporters from around the world. Today, though, we're staying in the States. As part of our visit to Las Vegas, we wanted to talk about how one of the country's most important public policy issues is playing here - immigration.

The city's booming economy has made it a destination for migrants, documented or not. It's one of the country's top 10 fastest growing big cities. But some residents worry that the population boom is harming their quality of life, or that immigrants are taking more in public services than they are contributing.

With us to talk about all these is Frank Geary. He is a staff writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and has been following this issue closely in a series of reports. He joins us by phone.

Frank, welcome.

Mr. FRANK GEARY (Staff Writer, Las Vegas Review-Journal): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Immigration has been a huge story all over the country. Tell me about your series. What did you hope to show?

Mr. GEARY: What we were asked to do by our executive editor Thomas Mitchell is to basically do a - in short, a cost benefit analysis to see, you know, whether the illegal immigrants, in particular, were a, you know, plus for our community, a positive for our economy, or whether they were a liability for, you know, our public agencies and public services, and to what degree did one outweigh the other.

MARTIN: It seems like that would be hard to pin down. I mean, you trying to isolate by definition people whose status is either ambiguous, or they're making an effort to hide it.

Mr. GEARY: Yeah. And the numbers, as we found, were very elusive - here in Nevada, anyway. State agencies, the county hospital, even police agencies really had a tough time answering our questions, and the school district as well. The people we spoke with at those different agencies seemed as though they were surprised we were asking the question, as though the question had never been asked before.

MARTIN: Can we take those issues one by one? I mean - so your basic plan was to try to do a cost benefit analysis in a couple of key areas. Are illegal immigrants costing the city more than they contribute in tax revenue and sort of productivity and so forth? Let's take those issues one by one. Let's talk about health care. You looked at the billing down of hospitals and health clinics. Did you come to any conclusion?

Mr. GEARY: I wouldn't say we came to any conclusions, but I think we did shed some light on the situation. What we were able to do is we asked the hospital to provide us with all the patients in 2006 who were unable to provide a social security number. We asked for billing and collection data, you know, based on ethnicity. And what we found was that in 2006, three out of every four patients at the University Medical Center, which is our public county hospital here, were Hispanic.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Okay. What about schools?

Mr. GEARY: One thing that surprised me was that half the Hispanic students in the Clark County School District are enrolled in the English as a second language program.

MARTIN: And you looked at criminal justice?

Mr. GEARY: We looked at criminal justice, and what we've found was that up until several years ago, jail officials did try to keep track of who was undocumented, who was documented coming in - going in and out of the jail. But after keeping track of those numbers and processing all this paperwork, they would forward it to the federal officials at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. And the federal officials really wouldn't do anything with the information.

MARTIN: And your efforts to track the illegal immigrant population, as you pointed out, had wound up providing a portrait of a Hispanic population overall. Did you learn anything interesting about the Latino population in Las Vegas and in Nevada as a result to the reporting?

Mr. GEARY: Yeah. Being out in the community and talking to people coming and going at the Hispanic market, for instance, you know, those people are struggling. I think, they're pretty much like - their families are very much like immigrant families throughout the history of America. They come here for work and for jobs and to make life better for their family. And occasionally, they do show up at the emergency room.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that I found interesting from reading your series is how many of the people you talked to reported not going to the doctor even when they should have gone…

Mr. GEARY: Right.

MARTIN: …because they wanted to avoid detection. Or because they had the impression that they wanted to make the case, if the opportunity for citizenship arose or if the opportunity for amnesty arose, that they wanted to be able to make the case that they had not been a burden on public services. And I found that very interesting, that some people had an explicit sort of point of view on that.

Mr. GEARY: Right. And with health care, that seemed to be the case with just about everybody we talked to. And that was another interesting thing I found is that - I talked to one woman who, you know, was born in the U.S. and she's married to an illegal. Her husband hadn't seen a dentist for 20 years, hadn't seen a doctor for 10 years, had no intention of seeing a doctor. Even with his wife urging him to, you know, to go to the hospital. They won't arrest you. They won't deport you. They won't write your name down on a piece of paper. Even with those assurances from his wife, he still, you know, didn't feel comfortable going to the doctor.

MARTIN: Well, that is interesting. It's a very interesting series, Frank, I have to tell you. So the point of the series was to try to pin down the facts. But immigration has become such a hot-button issue all over the country, and I just, you know, wondered in the course of reporting the series, did you encounter that? Was there a lot of heat around it? Was there a lot of emotion around the issue when you've - in the course of doing your reporting?

Mr. GEARY: Absolutely. Absolutely. On the one side, as I mentioned earlier, some of the immigrants I talked to, the fact that Congress was debating this bill - on that hand, I found that while the immigrants or Hispanics we talked to, either they were, you know, very uncomfortable with this legislation being talked about, very fearful of it. And on the other side, the e-mails we got were pretty much all along the lines of, you know, these people are illegal. These people should be deported immediately and not allowed to come back into the country.

MARTIN: So at the end of the day, do you feel that you and the other reporters who worked on the series, did you feel that you could come to a conclusion about this, that cost benefit analysis?

Mr. GEARY: I really don't think we could come to a conclusion at all. And part of the problem was the studies that have been done on the subject seemed to vary widely in their estimates of how many undocumented immigrants there are before we could really reach rock solid conclusions. We'd have to have, obviously, better numbers.

MARTIN: Frank Geary is a reporter who has been covering immigration for the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper. He joined us by phone from his home in Las Vegas. You can find links to Frank's stories on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Frank, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GEARY: Michel, thank you very much.

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