Several months ago, the Congressional Budget Office was asked to find out how much it would cost to give amnesty to the millions of illegal aliens in the United States. CBO staff members, after lengthy research, finally came up with some numbers, but they warned Congress: ``The estimates presented here are very uncertain.'' The actual costs of amnesty, the CBO said, ``could be well above or below [our] estimates.''
That worries many people here, including the Reagan White House, some members of Congress, and many state and local officials. Amnesty could make future budget deficits even larger.
Part of the problem of determining the cost of amnesty for illegal aliens is that presumably many if not most of them pay taxes on their wages and therefore add to the government coffers from which public services are funded.
Amnesty is at the heart of the immigration reforms being debated this year. Millions of illegal aliens might be involved. Eventually, a large part of the illegal alien population could become citizens and enjoy all the welfare, education, retirement, and other benefits of being an American.
But who will pay for everything? And what will it cost?
Already the states have received a taste of what amnesty could mean.
In 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled that states and communities across the country must educate the children of aliens, even if they are in the country illegally. The CBO estimates that 800,000 children of illegal aliens now attend US public schools.
That's costing the states about $3,870 a pupil, or a total cost of over $3 billion a year. That $3 billion comes right out of the pockets of state and local taxpayers. Costs could rise to $4.5 billion in the next five years, CBO says.
There are many reasons that estimating the cost of amnesty is largely a guessing game, the CBO observes. For example:
Nobody knows how many aliens are here. Nobody knows how many would want to stay and become citizens. Nobody knows how old the aliens are, their marital status, how many have jobs, how much they make on average, or where they live. Nobody knows whether Congress will give legal status to aliens who were here before 1980, '81, '82, or some other year -- and that could very heavily affect costs.
The uncertainty was so unnerving last year to lawmakers and the White House that negotiations over immigration reform collapsed because of the cost question.
Last year, the White House was most tightfisted when it came to granting funds to support amnesty, and the House of Representatives was most openhanded. The same pattern is emerging in this session.
The principal House measure, the Rodino-Mazzoli bill, for example, calls for full federal reimbursement to state and local governments for public assistance and educational costs of legalized aliens.
The key Senate measure, the Simpson bill, supported by the White House, provides a limit of $600 million a year for assistance to states and towns. The aid would be limited to three years and could be used only for public assistance and imprisonment costs associated with aliens.
Senate sources insist this would easily be enough to cover actual costs if only those aliens are legalized who entered the country before Jan. 1, 1980. But if the House date of Jan. 1, 1982, is used, more funds would be necessary, Senate sources say.
The Senate has taken the position that states and localities should be responsible for some costs, such as education, because aliens pay property, sales, and other local taxes which defray those expenses.
Both the Simpson and the Rodino-Mazzoli bills put some limits on public costs during the initial years of the legalization process.
Rodino-Mazzoli bars aliens (except Cubans and Haitians) from receiving federally funded public assistance for five years, for example. The only exceptions are for such things as emergency medical care and aid to the aged, blind, and disabled.
The Simpson bill effectively bars federally funded assistance (except to Cubans and Haitians) for six years.
In addition to public assistance and education costs, legalization would also increase expenses for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The INS budget, currently about $580 million a year, would grow to $840 million a year under the Simpson bill. The House bill would boost the figure to just over $1 billion a year.
The extra funds would be needed to strengthen the border patrol and run the new amnesty program, Senate sources say. Last of four articles. Other stories in series ran Sept. 5, 6, and 9.