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The cost of deporting Nebraska’s illegal immigrants: more than $500 million

February 28, 2011


Story by Asha Anchan and Rachel Albin, illustration by Kyle Bruggeman

Question: What do 2,000 new Rolls Royces, the Pentagon’s cyber-security investment and deporting all of Nebraska’s illegal immigrants have in common?

Answer: The same price tag—about $500 million.

Currently, about 45,000 undocumented immigrants live in Nebraska, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And it costs the federal government $12,500 to deport one person, an immigration official recently told a congressional subcommittee.

So the projected total to deport all of Nebraska’s undocumented immigrants is about $562.5 million—or $175.5 million more than the production and marketing costs of the blockbuster “Avatar.”

Some Nebraskans are on board with this theoretical cost, seeing it as a good investment. Others find it outrageous.

Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, who has introduced an Arizona-style immigration bill in the Nebraska Legislature, said he’d be quite willing to write the check because of its long-term benefits.

“If you could give me that option right now, I would exercise that option at ($562.5 million) …” Janssen said at a Feb. 15 press conference.

“When you extrapolate the cost of having somebody here … they come here, they have children, then they become citizens and then we have issues of health care forever, we have education issues, security issues. It is much less expensive, although semi-impossible, to deport everybody that’s here illegally,” Janssen said.

Additionally, Janssen said he fears the “culture of lawlessness” created when illegal immigrants remain in the United States and break federal laws. According to Janssen, this— coupled with the social cost—is well worth the potential investment.

But Charlie Clark, a former Lexington police chief, balked at the figure.

“I wouldn’t be thrilled at all to pay $12,500 for each person to be deported,” said Clark, a police officer for nearly 33 years. “That’s totally unreasonable.”

Jose Soto, a member of the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, had a much different take. He said the cost of deporting Nebraska’s undocumented immigrants wouldn’t stop at $562.5 million—and it also would hurt Nebraska’s economy by taking away workers.

“I think it’s wholly unreasonable that we would spend that amount of money to round up individuals who are, for the most part, contributing positively to our economy and our social life in our communities,” Soto said.

Said Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee: “…The cost is exorbitant, but I don’t think that’s all the cost … I think it’s much more than that.”

Ashford said that figure doesn’t include legal and local law enforcement costs. And even if money wasn’t the issue, there’s a better way to use tax dollars than to “catch 45,000 people.”

“The best use of taxpayer money is to secure the borders so that you don’t get people lured in here,” Ashford said. Instead, the state needs to “prosecute employers who try to entice workers here—that’s the best use of taxpayer money.”

Meanwhile, Jason Thomas knows first-hand about the arduous journey through immigration bureaucracy. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior started his citizenship path when he was about 5 years old and finished it when he became a citizen at 19.

Thomas’ grandparents moved to the U.S. from India in the late 1980s. Once they became citizens in the mid-1990s, they sponsored his family for legal immigration. The family didn’t get to move to the U.S. until 2002, when Thomas was 13. The process was long and expensive, he said, wiping out his parents’ savings.

After jumping through all the legal immigration hoops, Thomas has little sympathy for those who come to the U.S. illegally. Rather than spend $562.5 million deporting Nebraska’s undocumented immigrants, Thomas said he’d prefer putting his tax dollars toward incarceration or other punishment —even if it proves more expensive than deporting them.

“Deporting them, in my eyes, is not a punishment. It’s just sending them back to a country where they came from anyway and it’s not like they’re going to be punished there … They’ll be free in their own country,” said Thomas, a pre-med biology major.

“If I’m going to be paying ($562.5 million), then I want it to be a stricter punishment.”


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