In the immigration debate, activists often cite the cost of illegal migrants to U.S. taxpayers. In Prince William County, Va., near Washington, D.C., local officials have been trying to calculate the exact cost of a booming illegal immigrant population.
But they found it was impossible. The county supervisor who requested the study hopes to make a point that localities need more help from the federal government.
Prince William Supervisor Wally Covington sees illegal immigration driving the demand for things like ESL classes. The county school system recently requested funding for 57 more such teachers. The county budget's shortfalls are projected to grow.
Immigrant groups and their supporters say the county study is incomplete for another reason — it doesn't look at what immigrants contribute to the local economy.
John Steinboch volunteers with Mexicans without Borders. Looking at a busy corridor in the city of Woodbridge, he says, "If you look up and down the Route 1 corridor, for 2 miles the majority of the stores are Latino-owned. If you were to eliminate the immigrant population in this county, the economy would collapse in short order."
A study released last month by the Texas state comptroller's office found evidence that may support that idea. While it said that illegal immigrants contributed overall to the state economy, it found that local governments got stuck paying for healthcare and law enforcement. In any case, the Texas comptroller's office admitted that its study was "at best, an educated guess."
Covington says the nation needs to reconsider fundamentals, like a 25-year-old Supreme Court decision that says localities must pay for the education of illegal immigrants.
The dissenters in that case, Covington says, believed that "you're going to overburden local governments at some point. And that point is coming."
Covington plans to send a symbolic bill to the federal government for three million dollars. He says he'll also suggest Washington do its own study. He's sure with more time and resources, it could get a better picture of the local costs of illegal immigration.