Task force criticized for gathering data on how much immigrants cost state, but not how much they contribute _lowres

Valarie Hodges

A legislatively authorized panel gathering data on how much immigrants cost Louisiana was criticized for pursuing a partisan agenda during its Thursday meeting at the State Capitol.

“This is a sham,” Bienville House Center for Peace and Justice official Brian Marks said. “You are looking at the expense of immigrants … but not what immigrants are contributing to the state.”

Marks said the task force created by the Louisiana House had plenty of representatives from the Eagle Forum and Center for Security Policy — both “hard-right” organizations — but no advocates for immigrants.

“Every time there’s an economic crisis, it’s always blamed on immigrants,” Fernando Lopez said. “They work, and they pay taxes.”

State Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican and chairwoman of the Immigration Task Force, said the panel’s mission is focused on budget impact. The state is facing a potential $700 million deficit in the current fiscal year and $1.6 billion next year.

But she said nobody said expenditures related to immigrants are responsible for the deficits.

“We want to know what part of it is,” Hodges said, adding that the economic impact of illegal immigrants “could be catastrophic.”

The exchange came during a meeting at which officials of state agencies testified about expenses related to non-U.S. citizens. Most of the aid is required by the federal government. Hodges proposes that the state seek reimbursement for its costs. The expenses outlined are small compared with the state’s $25 billion budget.

State Department of Corrections Undersecretary Thomas Bickham said 287 non-U.S. citizens are in custody in Louisiana, for a range of crimes, out of some 37,000 prisoners.

“We don’t know whether they are here legally or illegally,” Bickham said.

Forty-three of the detainees have active Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers once they have finished serving their Louisiana prison time. Thirty of them are serving life sentences, he said. Another 427 have active probation and parole cases. Combined corrections cost is $3.29 million annually, Bickham said.

Out of 847,361 food stamp recipients, 5,399 of them are noncitizens, Department of Children and Family Services Deputy Assistant Secretary Sammy Guillory said. Total costs of benefits are paid by the federal government, he said.

Half of program administration costs are paid by the state, he said.

At the Department of Health and Hospitals, the state pays about $16.1 million toward health care costs of immigrants, DHH Chief of Staff Frank Opelka said. Most of the spending comes in Medicaid, in which pregnant noncitizens and those in need of emergency medical services are eligible for coverage.

Education officials said they could not get a handle on costs related to schooling of immigrant children nor the number in Louisiana schools. By federal mandate, the state must provide equal opportunity for all students regardless of whether they are in the U.S. legally or not.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage from the State Capitol, follow Louisiana politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.