In a recent “letter to the editor” printed by the News Journal, a Laurel resident expressed frustration over his attempts to learn how much Delaware’s state and local governments spend for services associated with undocumented immigrants.
This is a deceptively difficult question to answer. There is no census of the undocumented immigrants living in Delaware, although the Pew Research Center in 2015 estimated the number at between 20,000 and 25,000.
Similarly, there is no full accounting of the government services and benefits provided to undocumented immigrants. Typically, such residents do not qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, welfare, and most other public benefits – but this is not definitive.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, undocumented immigrants can receive “emergency Medicaid,” immunizations, and access to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. They can also get short-term, non-cash emergency disaster assistance and other in-kind services necessary to “protect life or safety.” These programs include those addressing weather emergencies and homelessness; public and mental health services; and disability and substance abuse services.
Federal law requires that anyone visiting a hospital emergency room be treated, regardless of immigration status. Medicaid reimburses some of these costs and in FY 2016 the Delaware Division of Medicaid and Medical Assistance reported that more than $6.84 million (state and federal money) was paid to treat nearly 6,300 “non-citizens.”
Public education remains a top expense for our state, constituting 34.5-percent of the current FY 2018 state budget; however it is not possible to count the number of children of undocumented immigrants in the public school system. Ironically, while Delaware public school officials are obligated to check that their students reside within the boundaries of the district, federal law bars them from requiring proof of citizenship or blocking students if their parents cannot prove legal U.S. residency.
The children of undocumented immigrants are often handicapped by the lack of English skills, making them more difficult and expensive to educate. According to the Rodel Foundation, the number of children learning English in our classrooms grew by 31 percent between 2007 and 2016 – nearly triple the growth rate of all students over this period.
Simply put, the State of Delaware does not have a complete understanding of the expenses associated with undocumented immigrants as it relates to public health care, hospitalization, the criminal justice system, the correctional system, public education, and social services.
State officials also do not fully comprehend the contributions of the undocumented immigrant community.
To address this uncertainty, State Rep. Deborah Hudson sponsored House Concurrent Resolution 51 to create the Illegal Immigration Task Force. The 13-member panel of state officials would be charged with studying the issue and making recommendations regarding the impact of illegal immigration on Delaware. The resolution is pending action in the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee and will remain viable through the remainder of the 149th General Assembly (2018).
Despite their illicit path to residency, most undocumented immigrants are otherwise law-abiding individuals that are simply interested in earning a living and taking care of their families. At the same time, it is a community about which too little is known, which is a detriment to undocumented immigrant families and policymakers alike.
State government has a responsibility to better define Delaware’s undocumented immigrant population so our officials have the tools they need to make decisions in the best interests of all those residing in Delaware.