Digging for numbers on illegal immigration

I was standing in the cattle chutes that pass for the check-in line for Southwest Airlines at McCarran International and could not escape the obvious.

As we worked our way through the switchbacks, we kept passing a group of eight young, relatively short, brown-complexioned men. All were clean and neat. All wore brand-spanking-new-right-out-of-the-box sneakers. None carried a stick of luggage. No carry-ons. No backpacks. Not so much as a shaving kit.

When they got to the front of the line, they all held back while one man approached the counter and counted out cash to purchase tickets for all.

As it turned out, when we sat down in the back of the aircraft bound for the tiny airport in Islip, N.Y., on Long Island, all were clustered a couple of rows back.

When the plane stopped for a brief layover in Baltimore, they scrambled off the plane. All save the man who bought the tickets.

Then the confusion started. A stewardess came on the speakers asking if anyone spoke Spanish. There was considerable chatter and people running up and down the aisle. Eventually, all eight men were herded back on the plane and we took off for Long Island, home of the community of Farmingville, which inexplicably has one of the largest communities of illegal Mexican immigrants in the Northeast.

Though his charges got off the plane in the wrong city, the coyote never spoke up, never stepped forward. Though it was patently obvious what was going on, neither did airport security, nor police, nor airline employees, nor passengers. Neither did I.

I was reminded of that scene from a couple of years ago -- one in which everyone looked the other way while a crime was being committed -- as I read the stories by the Review-Journal's special projects team on illegal immigration. I had assigned them to find out what the cost-benefit ratio is for illegal immigration. Positive or negative? What is the number?

It was not a simple task. It was an impossible task.

Hardly anyone is asking. School officials, health officials, law enforcement, employers, government bureaucrats of every stripe shrugged and protested that it is not their job to ask people whether they are in the country legally.

In a country that is mad about statistics and where you can find out the average number of toilets per household in every county in the country, the impact of illegal immigration is a question no one wants to ask.

In fact, Tom Rodriguez, the executive manager of the Clark County School District's Diversity and Affirmative Action Programs, is quoted in today's newspaper saying no school system in the country tracks whether its students are in the country legally or not.

"You might find some people on the far right who would want to do that," he said, "but I can't think of any educators that would want to do that. Why would an educator not want to provide educational services?"

Meanwhile, over among the health care bureaucrats, we find Charles Duarte, the overseer of Medicaid for the state Department of Health and Human Services. He is quoted as saying, "Hospitals are bound by (federal) laws. They're not interested in determining citizenship status."

Kathy Silver, the interim director of University Medical Center, also washed her hands. "We are a health care agency. We are not the INS, the police or the FBI. ... We are not in the business of determining whether people are in the country legally."

Police also maintain a don't-ask-don't-tell stance. Two weeks ago, we quoted Las Vegas police spokesman Jose Montoya on whether police check for legal residency. "Our policy states that if they haven't committed a crime, we're not going to press the issue."

Our efforts were revealing, but hardly found the number.

It leaves these questions for those who wish to formulate policy and new laws and reforms: How can you craft a solution if you don't know what the problem is or what your "solution" will cost in dollars and social impact?

p.s.: While preparing this series of stories on this topic, there were a number of discussions and arguments about fairness and discrimination. Were we stereotyping? Was this term or that racially insensitive, etc.? Should we call them illegal or undocumented?

Look at the jobs listed in the classified section of today's newspaper and count the number that demand the applicant be bilingual. Under the law, that's not discrimination. But it is a reflection of a changing community, no matter what lawmakers try to do. That is a specific number.

Thomas Mitchell is the editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.