Raleigh, N.C. — Various state agencies on Wednesday gave lawmakers their best estimates as to how much illegal immigrants cost North Carolina taxpayers.
More than 100 people packed the meeting room for the hearing by the House Select Committee on the State's Role in Immigration – half in support of illegal immigrants and half who want the state to take action against them.
Lawmakers learned that trying to calculate the cost to taxpayers for services to illegal immigrants is not as easy as they thought. The only solid number presented to the two-hour hearing was the $1.3 million spent on emergency medical care.
Officials with the state Department of Revenue, Division of Motor Vehicles and Department of Health and Human Services told lawmakers that illegal immigrants aren't eligible for most services, like food stamps or unemployment, and the benefits they can receive, such as education, are mostly mandated by federal law.
"It was interesting to hear those facts today that (agencies) are checking status and that there are limited benefits that we provide. I think it's a great information-gathering situation," said Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry.
Lawmakers just want to make sure illegal immigrants are contributing more to the state than their cost, Stevens said. More agencies will present reports to the committee next month.
Irene Godinez, legislative director for the Latin American Coalition, said a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study has found that illegal immigrants and their families pay hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local taxes in North Carolina every year.
James Johnson, a member of North Carolinians for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, said he's glad to see lawmakers looking into the issue.
"It seems like they want to do something to control the illegal alien population in our state. So, we're encouraged," Johnson said.
Godinez said, however, that the information the agency officials offered Wednesday has been available for years.
"It's a concern that we're wasting valuable time and $17,000 of North Carolina taxpayers' money for this committee," she said.
Immigration is generally a federal issue, and laws passed in other states this year are now tied up in courts.
Johnson said he doesn't see that as a deterrent to North Carolina taking action.
"That doesn't preclude us from going ahead and enacting the legislation now," he said.
Godinez said she worries that legislators will push for laws that target immigrants unfairly.
"We just want to have a civil dialog here in North Carolina and to put pressure on our federal government to do something on immigration reform," she said.
Stevens said she also wants to see federal reform, noting that North Carolina and other states are caught in the middle of the issue.
"It should be a federal problem, and If they're not taking it on at all, we have to do what we can within the borders of the state," she said.