There's been a lot of debate over the cost of illegal immigration, both nationally and to individual states. Terry Gorman, president of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, believes he knows the price tag for Rhode Island. And it’s big.
During an appearance on the Jan. 6 Helen Glover Show on WHJJ radio, Gorman stated that "illegal aliens cost the state of Rhode Island $400 million a year."
We wondered if Gorman's number was accurate.
In an interview with PolitiFact, he broke the costs down into four categories: Incarceration, education, Medicaid and hospital care. We’ll examine each individually.
This is the easiest category to deal with because there’s reliable data. It’s also the only one where Gorman is even close.
Gorman used three numbers to conclude that Rhode Island pays $7.2 million a year to keep illegal immigrants in prison. He said there were about 200 illegal immigrants incarcerated, at an annual cost of $43,000 per prisoner.
He multiplied those two numbers and then subtracted $1.2 million -- the amount he said the federal government pays the state to help cover the cost of their imprisonment. (The actual total is $7.4 million.)
We confirmed that annual cost (now $43,252) and the latest federal payment ($1 million) but discovered that the 200 number was a bit high. In 2010, the average quarterly count was 168, not all of whom turned out to be here illegally.
Gorman's total: $7.2 million. Our total: $6.2 million. That’s as close as he got.
In the other categories, Gorman's numbers quickly fell apart.
Gorman says it costs the state $239 million a year to educate illegal immigrant children and children of illegal immigrants.
To determine whether that number is accurate, you have to know how many illegal immigrant children there are and what the per-pupil cost of educating them is.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, because finding reliable data is difficult.
First, let’s consider the number of children.
Gorman says the Census Bureau estimated that in 2004 there were 8,740 illegal immigrant children and children of illegal immigrants in Rhode Island.
No it didn't.
The Census Bureau told us there was no such count of illegal immigrant children in 2004, or any other year. "That's not something we collect," said spokesman Thomas Edwards.
The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey does estimate the number of foreign-born children age 5 to 17. In 2009, that number was about 7,070.
Using data from the survey, we calculated that about 4,700 of those were not naturalized U.S. citizens. That’s more than 4,000 fewer than Gorman’s number.
And that number includes foreign-born children whose parents are in the country legally, such as youngsters whose parents were granted asylum.
So we looked for other ways to determine how many of those 4,700 children were here illegally.
The Census Bureau estimated that in 2009 there were 133,458 foreign-born people in Rhode Island in 2009. The bureau doesn’t count how many of those are here illegally.
So we contacted the Department of Homeland Security, which offers estimates of the number of "unauthorized immigrants" in the United States. But DHS spokesman Michael Hoefer told us "we only provide estimates for the larger states due to uncertainty in the precision for smaller states."
Looking for some way to zero in on Rhode Island, we looked at DHS data for two of those larger states, which, like Rhode Island, are both urban and in the Northeast: New York and New Jersey.
The DHS estimated in 2009 that 3.3 percent of the population of those states was in the U.S. illegally. Applying the same rate to Rhode Island's population -- a big assumption -- would give us about 35,000 unauthorized immigrants.
Then, just last week, the Pew Hispanic Center issued a report estimating that there were roughly 30,000 illegal immigrants in Rhode Island in 2010.
The key question: what percentage of those are school-age children?
Let’s go back to the Census Bureau estimate of 133,458 foreign born people in Rhode Island. If 30,000 (the Pew number) or 35,000 (the DHS number) are illegal immigrants, that’s about 22 to 26 percent.
Apply those percentages to the total number of foreign-born children in Rhode Island age 5 to 17 years -- which, remember, the Census pegged at 7,070 -- and you get 1,589 to 1,854 school age children.
That's about one fifth of Gorman's 8,740 figure.
OK. So now that we have a more accurate number of children, how much does it cost to educate them?
Gorman says the price is $23,000 per child. Plus, he reasoned, 20 percent of those students would need special education, including English instruction. For those students, he adds another $22,000.
But the Rhode Island Department of Education told us the statewide average per-pupil cost for 2009, the latest for which complete data are available, is $14,186 per student -- which includes special education, English instruction and other special programs like career and technical education.
So Gorman’s per-pupil cost is off by nearly $9,000. Even if we accept his special education cost estimate and assumed that every child needs extra English language instruction, the total would be no higher than $40 million to $47 million.
That’s not even close to $239 million.
Gorman asserts that 35 percent of the money spent on Medicaid and RIteCare -- programs that provide health care to low-income people -- goes to illegal immigrants or the children of illegal immigrants. His estimate of that cost: $125 million.
He said he based his claim on a 2005 Providence Journal story that talked about how much of the RIteCare budget goes to "undocumented clients."
But we were unable to find any such story in our database.
And David Burnett, associate director of the state’s Office of Health and Human Services, said the only undocumented people covered by Medicaid are 350 pregnant women currently covered by the RIteCare program through a special plan funded by the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). That's a tiny fraction -- less than three-tenths of a percent -- of the state's 121,000 RIteCare enrollees.
Not even close to 35 percent.
According to Burnett, the state’s Medicaid budget is $1.7 billion; RiteCare makes up $602 million of that total. Two thirds of that is federal money, according to Linda Katz, co-founder of The Poverty Institute. So Rhode Island's share of RIteCare is about $201 million.
And 0.289 percent of $201 million is $579,926, which brings the state's RIteCare cost for pregnant illegal immigrants down to under $600,000.
What about children of illegal immigrants who were born here? Those children are citizens and the state does not track them in a separate category. As a result, those costs are unknown.
Gorman's estimate: $125 million. Our estimate: less than $600,000, plus the unknown cost of those U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
FREE HOSPITAL CARE
Finally, we looked at Gorman's estimate that half the money the state gives local hospitals to cover the costs of uncompensated care is spent treating illegal immigrants. (Hospitals are required to treat people regardless of their ability to pay.)
He says the hospitals get $139 million a year. Half of that would be $69.5 million.
The last state payment to the hospitals was actually $127 million, according to Michael Souza, vice president for finance at the Hospital Association of Rhode Island.
But the state only paid out $60 million; the rest was federal money.
How much of that uncompensated care goes to illegal immigrants?
Gorman says his source is a hospital translator who appeared on a public access cable show in 2010. He declined to name the source but said, "We stand by our figures."
The hospital association says hospitals don't even collect that data.
"Patients are not required to provide SSN or even green card numbers if they have them," said Gail Leach Carvelli, media relations for Lifespan, a consortium of five Rhode Island hospitals. "It’s entirely optional. So to even try to put a percentage around it would be misleading."
So Gorman says uncompensated care for illegal immigrants costs the state $70 million a year. But the state is paying out only $60 million for all uncompensated care.
Even if he is correct that half the money goes to illegal immigrants -- and at this point, needless to say, we have our doubts -- that's $30 million, not $70 million.
IN SUMMARY . . .
We recognize that illegal immigrants impose a cost to the state, and there are costs that Gorman did not include, such as the added burden on law enforcement.
At the same time, he ignores mitigating factors, such as the taxes -- particularly sales taxes -- that even illegal immigrants pay to the state.
The $400 million figure he repeatedly cites sounds authoritative. But three of his four categories are based on numbers that are outdated, grossly inflated or have no documentation.
Thus, the inflammatory assertion that illegal immigrants drain the state of $400 million a year -- $400 for every man, woman and child in Rhode Island -- is ridiculously high.
And because inflammatory, ridiculous assertions qualify for our worst rating, we rule Pants On Fire!