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Revisiting Immigration Study a Popular Idea in Comptroller's Race

The state of Texas last performed a study on the economic impact of undocumented immigrants in 2006. The majority of the candidates running for comptroller in 2014 say it's time for that analysis to get an update.

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A majority of the candidates running to replace Texas Comptroller Susan Combs say that if elected, they would do what she has said her office cannot: update a key study on the economic impact of illegal immigration.

Such an analysis — which hasn’t been conducted since 2006, the year before Combs became comptroller — would serve to inform lawmakers and guide them in their policymaking when the Legislature reconvenes in 2015, said the candidates who are in favor of the new study.

The current GOP field for comptroller includes state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy; former gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina; state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville; and former state Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi. All except Torres said they were committed to updating such a study if they won the office. Mike Collier, a Democrat who recently announced his candidacy, also expressed support for updating the study.

The 2006 study, performed by then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, concluded that if the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants who lived in Texas in 2005 were deported, Texas would have lost about $17.7 billion in gross domestic product that year. It also showed that undocumented immigrants produced more in-state revenue — $1.58 billion in 2005 — than the $1.16 billion in costs they generated from using state services. However, local governments saw a loss of about $1.44 billion in combined health care and law enforcement costs that the state, due to its own policies, did not reimburse.

Combs has said changes in state and federal laws and other constraints on her office have prevented the study from getting an update.

Hegar said the comptroller’s office publishes several reports that he would review individually. But he said his mind is made up about the immigration study.

“It is obvious that Texans deserve to know what illegal immigration costs the taxpayers each year,” he said in a statement. “In order for Texas to truly understand the costs of illegal immigration to our state, we do need updated numbers. Whether it is updating that specific study or conducting a similar one, is something my administration will do.”

Medina said an updated study would help frame policy on something more than emotion.

“Given the number and significance of unauthorized migrants in Texas, it would seem the comptroller's office has a duty to regularly produce an analysis of the financial impact on the state's budget and economy,” she said. “While many of the conclusions drawn were based on assumption, the report certainly highlights the need to address in a meaningful way our policies, both at the state and local level, regarding migrants in Texas.”

But, she added, a net-positive economic return should not celebrate lawlessness.

“That’s certainly not a conclusion that I want us to draw,” said Medina, adding that despite rumors she is considering another run for governor, she is currently concentrating on the comptroller’s race. “But it does beg the question: Are the laws the problem?”

Asked about the study, Hilderbran didn’t get into specifics, but he left the door open to updating all the information that was available to his office should voters usher him into the statewide post.

“Texans and their elected officials deserve to have the most accurate and up to date information as possible," he said in a statement.

Torres said that he couldn’t commit to a decision until a “full accounting” of programs and policies took place. 

“My responsibility is to ensure that our state remains solvent and within budget,” Torres, a certified public accountant, said in an email. “Not knowing the variables that go into making such an extensive and costly study, I cannot commit that the department will have the budget or staffing to conduct such a study.”

Collier would find a way to get the study done, said his consultant, Jason Stanford.

“He thinks we should be making business-like decisions that aren’t influenced by politics, and this is a perfect example of that,” Stanford said. “We need the facts. We already know the politics.”

There are currently about 1.7 million undocumented immigrants in Texas, according to a September 2013 study released by the Pew Hispanic Center. The report’s authors, citing U.S. census data, said Texas was the only border state that didn’t see a decrease in unauthorized migration over the last few years.

With state-based immigration enforcement a hot-button issue during the 2011 legislative session, there was doubt that support for an updated study would be high given the net-positive financial impact the 2006 study yielded.

In June this year, U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who served in the Texas House for more than 20 years before his 2012 election to Congress, wrote Combs requesting that she refresh the data. He said an update couldn’t be better-timed in light of the national discussion on immigration reform. But Combs said then that changes in laws, combined with loss of staff and budget constraints, made the update impossible under what was left of her tenure.

A May study from the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for immigration reform, offered recent data related to Texas. Citing analysis from the Texas-based Perryman Group, the authors said that if the undocumented population disappeared from the state, Texas would lose $69.3 billion in economic activity, $30.8 billion in gross state product and about 403,000 jobs. 

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Demographics Economy Immigration Politics Glenn Hegar