AUSTIN – Texas taxpayers spent at least $250 million last year in state prison and health care costs for illegal immigrants, but figuring out the precise cost will be difficult, state officials testified on Wednesday.
The House State Affairs Committee solicited information about services and benefits provided to noncitizens – a preliminary review in preparation for a legislative session certain to see a push for tougher immigration laws similar to those enacted in Arizona.
"We want to focus on what the real costs are for state services," said committee Chairman Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton. "There's really not a lot of wholly accurate data."
Along the way, committee members said the hearing dispelled some of their beliefs, including that Texas law enforcement doesn't check the citizenship status of those arrested for crimes.
Department of Pubic Safety director Steve McCraw assured members that automated fingerprint checks are routinely performed against FBI and other national databases that check citizenship status.
"The perception that police are arresting people and they are being let go without their status being checked is incorrect," McCraw said, adding that since 2006, law enforcement agencies have referred 48,000 cases to Border Patrol officials.
Over the past three years, the state has provided $240 million to add troopers, equipment, Texas Rangers and other resources to South Texas to beef up border security.
While 7,400 federal border agents are in Texas – with another 250 on the way – McCraw said it still will not be enough.
"To get to a level where we're secure, it's not going to be 100, 500 or even 1,000 more. Someone's going to have to make a serious investment in border patrol," he said.
Jerry McGinty, the chief financial officer for the Texas Department of Corrections, said that last month, state prisons held 11,766 offenders who are foreign citizens – about 7.5 percent of the prison population. Housing them costs about $171 million per year, and the federal government reimburses about 10 percent of the expense.
Rick Allgeyer, director of research for the Health and Human Services Commission, told the committee that health care to illegal immigrants last year cost the state nearly $100 million, mostly for emergency hospital care.
The figure includes the cost of 63,000 births – including 11,000 at Parkland Memorial Hospital, as The Dallas Morning News reported last week.
Also testifying was Denton County Judge Mary Horn, who described a new county initiative that collects information on whether patients in Denton's indigent health care program are undocumented.
Of the 398 clients served in 2009, 18 were not citizens. Of the 273 clients served thus far this year, 21 were undocumented. The illegal immigrants both years have accounted for less than 5 percent of the program's costs and averaged about $3,000 per client, Horn said.
Over the past five years, Horn said, Denton County also has had about $845,000 in jail costs for housing a total of about 2,800 offenders who were eventually deported or taken into federal custody.
Dallas County Criminal Justice director Ron Stretcher said in an interview after the hearing that the county jail does not know the citizenship status of its entire inmate population, but last month, it turned 196 non-citizens over to federal immigration authorities.
Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said that an Arizona-type law allowing police to question those stopped about their citizenship status could fill every county jail in the state.
"It would bust all our counties," he said.
Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, also was skeptical after hearing officials say that federal authorities are mostly interested in the bigger criminals and will leave local prosecutors to handle more routine crimes.
"Every time they run in the groundskeepers and the welders and the dishwashers, who pays for that?" he said after the hearing. "If the decision is that we pay for that, at least we need to know