Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


The 70 percent solution


Virginians look to local government for solid data on issues like illegal immigration. But there is no evidence supporting Chesterfield County's estimate that seven of 10 Hispanics in the county are there illegally.


The devil is certainly in the details. One week ago, I wrote an opinion piece, questioning the figures used in a report by Chesterfield County trying to justify a claim that the county spent more than $2.1 million annually on illegal aliens. The report is a run-up to a hearing Nov. 14 on illegal immigration and whether the county should crack down. Curiously, the report gave no estimate of how many illegal aliens are actually in Chesterfield  – the sine qua non for estimating costs on county services.


The report bugged me and a lot of others. Not only did my column generate more than four dozen responses, I got a call from Deputy County Administrator Rebecca Dickson (whose name I had badly misspelled). The county had directed me to her for more detailed explanation of where data in the Aug. 16 report by County Administrator James J.L. Steigmaier came from. I had tried and failed to reach Ms. Dickson, who now wanted to set me straight.


Before getting into specifics, let me say that  Ms. Dickson is obviously a public servant trying to do a tough job fairly. She impressed upon me that the county staff is well aware of how racially loaded the issue of illegal immigration is. Counties such as Prince William have adopted strident anti “illegal” measures, but the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors (just shaken up in elections) hasn’t done anything yet.


After reviewing her explanation and tapping other sources, nonetheless, I have come to a few conclusions. First, Chesterfield’s figures are too suspect to justify any kind of crackdown at all. The grand harrumph about illegals is based on bad data, guesses and lots of anecdotes. The more I studied the Chesterfield report and did my own research, I came up with figures and views completely opposite or certainly nowhere as profound.


But that doesn’t solve the massive problems in Stegmaier’s report. For starters, officials in Chesterfield, population about 300,000, estimate that from 17,500 to 21,000 illegal aliens – all of them Hispanics -- live in the county. This revelation came during an interview with Dickson and has never been made public, perhaps because the estimate is so flimsy.


The number is important because it is the basis of the $2.1 million cost estimate of the County’s total budget of $336 million. Ms. Dickson says that the cost numbers hold despite the uncertainty as to the total numbers of illegal aliens. To me, that defies logic.


In coming up with its alien guess, the County looked only at Hispanics and no other immigrant group. (Racial profiling, anyone?) The latest 2000 U.S. Census reported that 15,000 county residents checked the box “Hispanic” beside their names. Mind you, these people could be here legally or illegally. All they did was check a box on a chart. To this, Chesterfield officials add another 10,000 to 15,000 Hispanics. This was the brainchild of a “Hispanic cross functional team” that worked in the county two or three years ago, Dickson says. So, we are up to levels of 25,000 to 30,000 of Hispanics who are in the county legally or illegally, by the County’s count.


How do we know how many are here illegally? In Chesterfield, we guess and we come up with a whopping 70 percent, equating to about 17,500 to 20,000 illegals in all.  Why 70 percent? According to Ms. Dickson: “Essentially this (aforementioned) team, indicated that anecdotally, they believed that about 70 percent of the Hispanic population was here illegally. That is how we got 70 percent.” The County did a second estimate based on massaging census figures another way and got a lower illegal population of 13,150.


“Ridiculous” is the reaction of Communication Director Jesus Moreno of the Falls Church-based advocacy group, The Hispanic Committee of Virginia. Moreno’s group uses figures from the nationally known Pew Research outfit, which estimates that of the 40 million Hispanics in the U.S., from 10 to 11 million are undocumented. If that ratio is common everywhere, then Chesterfield’s population of illegal Hispanics, assuming the totals are correct, is more like 4,000, or about one fifth of Chesterfield’s guess. Says Moreno: “I guess they knocked on the doors of 10 Hispanics and figured that seven people were illegal.”


To back the county’s methodology, Ms. Dickson directed me to a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which does studies for the General Assembly. In 2004, JLARC published a report on how “foreign-born” Virginians were faring. “Foreign born” could mean illegal but also could mean naturalized U.S. citizens or ones here with proper documents.


When I checked the report, I couldn’t find much to back Chesterfield’s estimates. In fact, I found just the opposite.


While the number of foreign-born residents increased statewide 83 percent from 1990 to 2000, the total amounted to about 570,279 or a small fraction of the total state population. Most, 41.3 percent, were from Asia with 33.3 percent from Latin America. This is interesting because Chesterfield chose only to study Hispanics, not Koreans, Indians, or Chinese for potential illegal status. And, the JLARC report cited only about 13,523 “foreign born” – legal or illegal of all backgrounds -- residents in Chesterfield, which is hard to square with Dickson’s numbers. Even the county’s illegal Hispanic figures are way higher than these. However, from 1990 to 2000, Chesterfield’s “foreign-born” population did double.


To be sure, I called Phil Leone, executive director of JLARC. His group’s 2004 report could not find much negative impact from foreign born Virginians and noted that the report didn’t specifically look at illegals. “There wasn’t a great demand on services,” he said. Rather, he said, “the foreign born contribute immensely to the state economy.” Told of Chesterfield’s estimates of illegal Hispanics, he said, “They didn’t get that from our report. They may have read our report and made their own assumptions.”


Indeed, assumptions are not facts, but they sure play a role in politics. The illegal alien invasion has been an ugly rallying cry by state Republicans as they tried to make up for various failings in the Nov. 6 election. They were only partly successful, losing the Senate to the Democrats. In Northern Virginia, a key battleground, the GOP’s tactic may have worked in outer suburbs of Loudoun and Prince William, but failed in the inner suburbs of Arlington and Fairfax, which are much more diverse and have larger immigrant populations, The Washington Post notes.


Chesterfield is an outer, Republican suburb like Loudoun where many residents in the white majority are not used to diversity. Some are quick to scream “illegal” when confronted with non-English speaking, dark-skinned people.


Unfortunately, come the Nov. 14 hearing, many will probably vent their fears and their ignorance as they have been primed to do by their local GOP leaders. Fanning the flames will be Chesterfield’s badly flawed report. No doubt it will be cited as the Gospel truth by other Virginia localities as they form vigilante squads to fight the supposed alien invasion.


-- November 12, 2007
















The White Man’s Burden


Some estimated Chesterfield expenses for illegal immigrants:


-- Juvenile Court. $3,048 annually handling an estimated 5 Juvenile Court. $3,048 annually handling an estimated 5 cent of all cases that involve illegal immigrant


-- Circuit Court. $16,935 annually handling about 80 hours per week handling illegal immigrant cases.


-- General District Court: 20 to 25 cases per week involving illegal immigrants totaling $64,300 annually, plus Spanish language services.


-- $230,00 annually handling an average of six illegal immigrants in jail. Daily jail population can reach 400.


Data: Chesterfield County.


Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)