MICHELE NORRIS, host:

When it comes to the immigration debate in this country, activists often cite the cost of illegal migrants to U.S. taxpayers. In Prince William County, Virginia, outside 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.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: County executive Craig Gerhard(ph) sounds like a man who never relished this assignment in the first place and is glad it's over. He and his staff made a great effort, he says. But in the end, there was very little they could calculate with certainty.

Mr. CRAIG GERHARD (County executive): The three areas where we could very clearly say, we know the status of the folks who are using this service, and I use service a little bit tongue-in-cheek, is that the adult detention center -

LUDDEN: That would be the jail -

Mr. GERHARD: - we're - we're - that's the jail - at the juvenile detention center and in our emergency Medicaid applications.

LUDDEN: Gerhard found the total cost of servicing illegal immigrants in those places is about three million dollars a year, most of the jail. Beyond that, Gerhard says he ran into one roadblock after another.

First and foremost, the county has no idea how many illegal immigrants there are. What's more, in many cases, federal and state law forbids even asking if someone's illegal. Like in the schools, which Gerhard says is the county's biggest expenditure.

Finally, he says, even if you knew you had say, 10,000 illegal immigrants, you couldn't just calculate that they cost taxpayers a certain amount per capita. Take the county's fire and rescue stations. Gerhard says they're setup so rescuers can respond to major population centers quickly.

Mr. GERHARD: If you didn't have 10,000 people in your community, it just weren't there, we really wouldn't be in the position to close down any of those stations because they're geographically based.

LUDDEN: Immigrant groups and their supporters say the county study is incomplete for another reason - it doesn't look at what immigrants contribute.

John Steinboch(ph) volunteers with Mexicans Without Borders and stands along a busy corridor in the city of Woodbridge.

Mr. JOHN STEINBOCH (Volunteer, Mexicans without Borders): 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.

LUDDEN: Ricardo Juarez is a construction worker in Woodbridge and the head of Mexicans Without Borders

Mr. RICARDO JUAREZ (Mexicans without Borders): (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: I'm sure the county is afraid to look at the contributions of illegal immigrants, he says, because they suspect we give an enormous amount. That's just what a study last month by the Texas state comptroller's office found, although while it said illegal immigrants contributed overall to the state economy, it found that local governments got stuck paying for health care and law enforcement. In any case, the Texas comptroller's office admitted it all was, at best, an educated guess.

The man who requested the Virginia study isn't giving up. 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 projected to grow.

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.

Mr. WALLY COVINGTON (Prince William County Supervisor): The dissenters largely said you're going to overburden local governments at some point. And that point is coming.

LUDDEN: 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.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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