Status questions ignored; counting cost comes 2nd

By Dennis Romboy and Lucinda Dillon Kinkead
Deseret Morning News

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

A mural in the cafeteria of Central Middle School displays the flags of nations representing the school's ethnic makeup. Ogden School District is 42 percent Hispanic.

Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News

While the political fight over illegal immigration polarizes the community, professionals such as doctors and teachers who interact with undocumented families daily accept them without question.

Schools, hospitals and other government services generally don't inquire about a person's citizenship status before issuing a locker or setting a broken leg.

"We don't ask. We treat people," said Wes Thompson, IHC vice president for community health partnerships. "We're not the INS. We don't want to be in that role."

Asking too many questions, he said, scares away patients who need medical attention. "We feel like it's a human right to get them health care," Thompson said.

Schools have the same attitude.

"We want to be seen as the nonthreatening people who educate children," said Greg Hudnall, Provo School District student services director.

Providing illegal immigrants access to public education, health care and other social services costs Utah money. There's no question about that. The question is: How much?

An accurate assessment of their perceived drain is elusive.

Those entities generally do not keep track of citizenship status. They say they don't know how many undocumented people they serve. Any attempt to attach a dollar figure to the undocumented immigrants they teach, patch up or provide family support would merely be a guess, something officials in those areas were not willing to do.

National organizations with a particular slant on immigration issues, however, have made attempts to quantify the impact. The results are met with fervor or skepticism, depending on one's point of view.

The federal government, in recent studies on health care and education, took dozens of pages to conclude it doesn't really know the costs.

Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. notes there is "enormous variability" in the reports that do exist. Little is specific to Utah.

Yet, taking education as an example, Huntsman said, "We talk about it like it's breaking the bank."

Utahns don't have a problem with undocumented children getting a free education.

Nearly two-thirds strongly or somewhat favor allowing them to attend public schools, according to a Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll. Nearly 75 percent are OK with impoverished illegal immigrants receiving free school breakfast and lunch. And another 60 percent say students who attend at least three years and graduate from a Utah high school should be allowed to pay in-state tuition at the state's colleges and universities.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform says though massive budget deficits in U.S. schools can't be attributed to one source, the "enormous impact of large-scale illegal immigration cannot be ignored."

FAIR, based in Washington, D.C., attempted to quantify the costs of educating undocumented students in the nation's public schools.

For Utah, the group estimated $76.8 million in 2004. It used government estimates of the illegal immigrant population and the state's 1999-2000 per-pupil expenditure reported to the U.S. Department of Education, which was $4,378.

Dividing FAIR's numbers into each other makes 17,542 illegal immigrant schoolchildren in Utah.

The Utah State Office of Education could neither support nor refute the findings.

"I don't know how we could even guess at the those numbers," state school attorney Carol Lear said.

Utah school districts don't have solid data on which to rely, nor are they interested in compiling any.

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