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Follow the Money: The Cost of Illegal Immigration


Peg Cole earned a BA in Government and Politics at UT Dallas. She's a former project manager turned freelance writer.

Tijuana - San Diego Border

A small fence separates densely-populated Tijuana, right, from San Diego

A small fence separates densely-populated Tijuana, right, from San Diego

Immigration is a hot topic for both sides of the fence when it comes to taking a stand. Many believe that the United States should have no borders and allow whoever wants to come here the freedom to do so. Others believe that open borders allow those who have criminal backgrounds or ties to terrorist organizations free access to our country along with benefits like health care, education, housing assistance and food supplement and nutrition programs including supplemental income and welfare benefits.

On the one side, we face the ongoing cost of maintaining a secure border and of deporting those who are not in this country legally. On the other side, we see the humanitarian needs of those less fortunate who come to this country in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

This is a brief look at the issues along with a few of the related financial costs of immigration.

When the Europeans arrived, carrying germs which thrived in dense, semi-urban populations, the indigenous people of the Americas were effectively doomed. They had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans.

— Guns, Germs and Steel from PBS.org

Native American Indians

What about the Native Americans who were in North America before the Spaniards, French, Germans, Poles, Asians and Europeans who came and settled this land? There are many who say we stole the land from the American Indians that were here first. Of the million native tribal indigenous people who occupied this country, nearly 90% were wiped out by smallpox and other diseases that came with the early settlers.

Scientific evidence has been discovered that links all native tribes to a single gene pool with their ancestral roots originating in Asia. 1

DNA Studies of the bones of an early skeleton found in what is now Montana “clearly shows that the homeland of the first Americans was Asia,” says study coauthor Michael Waters. He’s a geologist and archaeologist at Texas A&M University in College Station. Two teams of scientific researchers come to similar but different conclusions.

Foreign Born Versus Native Born

Native born includes anyone who is a U.S. citizen at birth that is, born in the United States, born in Puerto Rico, born in a U.S. Island Area (e.g., Guam), born abroad of U.S. citizen parent(s) such as infants born to military parents serving at a foreign base like Germany, Japan, Guantanamo, or any of the 800 military bases in more than 70 countries.

Foreign born is defined as anyone who is not a U.S. citizen at birth which includes naturalized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary migrants, humanitarian migrants and unauthorized migrants.

Senator Marco Rubio with Customs and Border Patrol Agents at the Mexican Border.

Senator Marco Rubio with Customs and Border Patrol Agents at the Mexican Border.

Public Education

Children with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent made up 6.9% of students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in 2012. Most (5.5% of all students) are U.S.-born children who are U.S. citizens at birth. The rest (1.4%) are unauthorized immigrants themselves.2

Studies show that the average cost of education per student in public elementary and secondary is around $12,296 per pupil although the cost varies per state. Twelve years of education would amount to a figure of $147,552 per pupil.

South side of the US-Mexico border wall in Progreso Lakes, Texas. 21 March 2016

South side of the US-Mexico border wall in Progreso Lakes, Texas. 21 March 2016

Benefits for U.S. households take into consideration the cost of population based services like driving on public roads and highways, police and fire department services, access to parks and other community related services.

Benefits like cash, food, housing and medical services are provided which include over 80 different programs at a cost of nearly $900 billion taxpayer dollars per year. These are given to over 100 million Americans every year based on low-income status. This includes Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, public housing and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.


The United States Census Bureau Reports that the labor force participation of adults above the age of twenty-five who are foreign born, is sixty-nine (69%) percent. This follows that thirty-one percent are not counted in the population of workers who pay income tax.

"According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2012, there were 484,072 new, legal entries into the United States, as the Migration Policy Institute indicates. However, this number does not include illegal immigrants. Statistics estimate around 11.5 million illegal immigrants reside in the U.S. today." 4

Labor Force Participation


Fiscal Cost

"In 2010, the average unlawful immigrant household received around $24,721 in government benefits and services while paying some $10,334 in taxes. This generated an average annual fiscal deficit (benefits received minus taxes paid) of around $14,387 per household. This cost had to be borne by U.S. taxpayers.

Amnesty for 11.5 million immigrants who are in this country already would provide unlawful households with access to over 80 means-tested welfare programs, Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicare. The fiscal deficit for each household would soar." 3

What are the Rules on Immigration?

The rules of immigration are very complex. "Immigration to the United States is based upon the following principles: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity." 5

"As of 2015, the Immigration and Naturalization Act, the body of laws that guide U.S. immigration policy, limits the maximum annual number of permanent immigrants to 675,000 people, states the American Immigration Council. The president and Congress determine yearly numerical admission limits for refugees." 6


What is Transfer Income?

How much does the average household pay in total federal taxes compared to the total amount of federal transfer income they receive? How much do families get back in federal spending relative to the taxes they pay?

Looking at the population as divided into five groups based on income, or quintiles, according to The Congressional Budget Office tables, over sixty percent (60%) of households "received more in transfer income than they paid in all federal taxes." 7

What is transfer income? Although many lower income households pay taxes on consumable products like cigarettes, gasoline, alcohol and payroll taxes, money received from the government in the form of benefits often exceeds the amount paid in the form of taxes.

According to the Tax Foundation, the nation’s leading independent tax policy research organization, studies indicate that the "first three quintiles including the middle class all received more in transfer income than they paid in all federal taxes, while the fourth quintile was virtually at parity. Only the top quintile paid substantially far more in total taxes than they got back in transfer income." This study was done in 2009. Since that time the numbers have grown.

What are Remittances?

Remittances are the dollars that workers sent to their home country when working in a foreign country. Workers from Mexico support the Mexican government in their remissions of U.S. dollars that leave this country and move into the economy of other places.

"Remittances in Mexico increased to $2,362,910,000 U.S. Dollars in November 2016, up from $2,216,430,000 in October 2016." These figures are up from years past with a record low amount of remittances in 1995 of $248,060,000 to a record high of $2,637,710,000 in October of 2008." 8

U.S. - Mexico Nogales Border

By Darkros at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Darkros at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are many opinions on immigration and of the proper solution to the issue of people who enter a country in violation of the established laws for entry. There are consequences for those who enter foreign countries in most every instance.

According to the President of Mexico, under Mexican law, illegal immigration is a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison. Immigrants who are deported and attempt to re-enter can be imprisoned for 10 years. The link takes you to a conversation where he explains that although he claims the law was changed last year, these laws are still enforced.

If a prosperous country opens its borders to anyone who wants to come here what would be the end result? Should your tax dollars be given to someone else as supplemental income? These questions on the issue on immigration reform are driven by the current set of laws and regulations on the books. Should these laws be changed?

Notes and Sources

  1. Science News for Students, Native Americans Origins, Tina H. Saey, Feb 8 2014
  2. Pew Research Center, Hispanic Trends, Nov. 18,, 2014, J. Passel and D. Cohn
  3. National Center for Education Statistics, Cost of education per pupil, Fast Facts
  4. The Association of Mature American Citizens AMAC, September 17, 2016
  5. Rules of Immigration
  6. Reference, Government and Politics, Immigration
  7. U.S. Census Bureau Foreign Born Population Statistics, 1960 to 2010
  8. Tax Foundation, Scott A. Hodge, October 4, 2012, Transfer Income
  9. Trading Economics Report, Mexico Remittances

© 2017 Peg Cole


Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on June 26, 2018:

Thanks, Jackie, for adding your thoughts to the issues presented here. It is a complex problem that needs serious attention by those who represent us in government.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 03, 2018:

How on earth did I miss this! lol

Clearly, illegal immigration is a problem and unfair to our veterans and homeless. Ones who do it it legally should be very angry about it too. (Many are.)

I know we all can see that with illegal immigration and refugees we take in that it is not only a financial problem but one where these non-Americans want us to change.

Our flag offends them? Our religion offends them? Our food, and animals? I hope we do not become over-ran as some other countries clearly have and beautiful cities and places obliterated and turned to nasty slums.

Clearly some want to use illegals as political objects but those do not see the big picture that if we are destroyed as a country and people, what does it matter who wins the most votes? Where will we run to?

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on May 21, 2018:

Patricia, Thanks for sharing your personal experience and the insight into health care expense issues of citizens. Your grandson, Heston, remains in my daily prayers as do you and his caregivers. Thank you for your comments and for sharing this article.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on May 21, 2018:

I posted this on Facebook.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on May 21, 2018:

back again....I must say this....my grandson about whom I have written and continue to update on here on HubPages incurs huge medical expenses each year. His father works hard and he carries insurance which costs 400+ dollars per month. Still many many many of Heston Wayne's medical costs are not covered. Each time my daughter has to take Heston Wayne to the hospital she has to pay a minimum of 300 dollars for uncovered expenses. Often she waits in line behind those who are not here legally and who are receiving free care...while she is paying out money that is needed for living expenses. She is forced to hold numerous fundraisers every year in order to try and tread water. I wonder how many people would still be willing to allow the influx of those who receive so much free when those who are here from birth struggle to survive. Angels are once again on the way. ps

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on December 05, 2017:

Hello Patricia,

Yes, I agree, the subject is complex and I am also conflicted. My grandmother was an immigrant who came to this country through the immigration requirements at that time, which were stringent.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 05, 2017:

A complex topic for sure. And it is one that I am conflicted about...enough said...

Angels are on the way and thank you for tackling a hot topic. ps

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on February 23, 2017:

Hello Flourish, Thanks for sharing your insight in this discussion. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I believe that you're right about hiring practices. So many citizens are still unemployed who truly want to work.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on February 23, 2017:

Thanks for stopping by, Shauna. I believe you have voiced the true issues in your comment. People like my grandparents came to this country looking to make a better life. They came in through the required channels, followed the rules, learned the language, became citizens and lived productive lives in the new country they loved.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on February 23, 2017:

Very well written article, Peg. Once upon a time ago, America was known as the melting pot of the world. We all have DNA that shows our roots came from places other than America. Some of us have Native American roots as well as those of immigrants. The difference is, then the immigrants were anxious to become American citizens and begin a new life. If all of the "incoming" would respect and follow that mindset, I don't think immigration would be an issue at all. Play by the rules, learn our language, or suffer the consequences.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 02, 2017:

It was insightful to read your article and perspective. If all employers require proper work authorization via i9s and people stop hiring undocumented labor like nannies and household workers the problem is largely resolved. People come here for work (the demand) and if they cannot get it then you take the supply away. We will, however, have to bear the consequences of higher prices (construction, farming, etc).

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 31, 2017:

Thank you, Genna and Sanxuary, for sharing your thoughts in a positive and productive way. I appreciate your input.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 31, 2017:

Thanks for watching the video, Dana Tate. I found that one most interesting. Sorry to hear of your situation. The system does seem to favor those who have children. What gets rewarded gets done, as in having more children. There was another video that touched on that theme.

Sanxuary on January 31, 2017:

I am for the wall but not because of immigration. After 911 the government spent billions on home land security and demanded that every company pay for security. Only half of it has actually happened because its so expensive. Imagine every rail car that is explosive must be behind a fence with security watching it. Yet we can not stop anyone from crossing our borders? The majority of Immigrants came here legally and just never left. The argument in the white house is not about solving real problems. Its a National Socialist agenda to over ride all institutions in this country to create God only knows. I am not condemning the wall or immigration or any issue. I am condemning what I see is a rising dictatorship in america. If I am wrong then follow its legal system and the protocol of its Institutions that exist for a reason. If you stick to the facts then you do not need politics to find a real soulution to a problem. People will be unhappy about any decision but atleast give them something that holds logic and works towards no longer calling it a problem. Give them a plan we can all agree on legally.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 30, 2017:

Sanxuary, you've brought up an excellent point. But it's a mixed bag in terms of pay scales not being enough to attract American workers, as opposed to hiring undocumented workers who are grateful for the job; show up on time; and work well. Two of my clients are construction companies. These are eight-figure companies that pay very well to attract good people. Still, they complain that it's hard to find them. (And not just in the labor-centric jobs.) They show up late, or are no-shows; have a drug or alcohol related problem; think that manual labor is beneath them; or are floaters, looking to work for the required period of time before they can go on unemployment. One organization finally threw up their hands and had to sub out the work for one of their more labor-intensive phases of construction. Even then, there are those occasions wherein the subcontractor runs into the same problems. But the opposite end of the spectrum still exists with other employers out there who low-ball the hourly comp rates to make greater profits and/or remain competitive.

Another reason I'm not a fan of the wall is that it won't dissuade those who come here, legally, and overstay their visa. I believe those stats run anywhere from 30-40% of all undocs currently in the US.

Sanxuary on January 29, 2017:

There are plenty of soulutions. The first is to not make them political. Tell the truth and explain how the problem happened in the first place and its always about money. Slow down the number of immigrants we accept because to much immigration is a problem for all countries. Start with the earliest people not given citizenship and move forward on citizenship. Determine are real labor needs and jobs in this country. Make a true determination of why companies are leaving our country and see what realistic soulutions exist. Raise the cost of living in other nations so real wages can be adjusted. If they make all this money from us buying it then something is not equal for some reason. Reducing us to be a third world nation is not the answer. America needs a make over. Everything we ever b uilt can be re-invented and made better in America. You can not simply remove a problem by never acknowledging it. You have to get to the facts and tell the truth. National Socialismn is not the answer in this country and has never been the answer in a nation of immigrants. We are no different then Rome and the power of Rome is it had allies amongst all people it had in its empire. We have every voice in the World that desires a better life on this planet and we are not using that voice very wisely to do exactly that. We do use those voices to make a lot of money however.

Dana Tate from LOS ANGELES on January 29, 2017:

That video with the woman (Lucy) saying "people who work are stupid" tapped into the minds of many women and men who sit on welfare. I had one guy tell me awhile back -"Your job is not guaranteed but that welfare check is" I thought he was a leech. Many years later I was out of work and found out after unemployment, there is no help for the person who has no children. It broke my heart to become homeless, jobless and watch people on welfare still maintain their homes and still eat good off my tax dollars. So I paid into the system and they benefited. I fell and they still maintained. This is when my illusion of the "American Dream" tarnished.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 29, 2017:

MsDora, Your words mean a lot to me. I tried very hard to represent the variety of issues that must be considered when legislating policy on immigration. I appreciate very much that you read this and found it useful.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 29, 2017:

Thanks for the input, Sanxuary. I see no easy solution to the complex issues of immigration.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 29, 2017:

Peg, as a naturalized American I usually hold my breath when I read topics like these, because I'm sensitive to some of the situations which cause residents to be in the US illegally. Your article was factual, eye-opening, reasonable and a good read. Thanks!

Sanxuary on January 28, 2017:

This entire issue was created by labor. They wanted cheap labor and they wanted to lower wages. If they are costing the tax payers millions of dollars then they should charge the people who hire them. If they truly need this labor then they are going to have to realize they are going to have to pay for it. Then they will not be able to use the argument that Americans will not do the work. If you pay them a real wage and stop this part time hours employment plant then you might discover they will do the work.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 28, 2017:

Martie, I wholeheartedly agree with you in your observation. "Developed countries should rather try to improve the conditions in undeveloped countries than opening its borders for immigrants." I remember efforts of the Peace Corps that taught skills and improved farming techniques to help the people in other countries reap better harvests and learn new trades. And still, when I look at the money we spend trying to rebuild and improve the infrastructure of other countries while our own grows older and less efficient, I question the effectiveness of that plan. The solution is not clear or easy or without serious cost both in financial and emotional ways.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 28, 2017:

Genna, I've apparently misspoken with my use of the word "support" in my question, "How many people can one nation actually support?" I meant the word in rhetorical terms in the sense of "How many humans can one acre of wheat support?", or "How many people can move into one area of the planet?" not in terms of support meaning financial benefits.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 28, 2017:

Hello Mike, Thanks for the sage advice. I've actually read much of the text of the ACA and it is riddled with added provisions that have no business being included. I will probably take your advice and not cover that topic to avoid a lot of uproar from the findings.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on January 28, 2017:

Stealing native’s land, killing them with our European viruses – this is but only two of the many facts (or assumptions) that put whites in South Africa and the USA in the same category of ‘despicable humans’. According to our critics we have done nothing right since the day we have left our country of origin.

Suffering the financial implications of illegal immigrants also puts us in the same category.

Something radical has to be done to minimize immigration. Developed countries should rather try to improve the conditions in undeveloped countries than opening its borders for immigrants. But this, too, seems to be a waste of money and energy. Solutions keep on evading us!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 28, 2017:

I meant type in "part of the trade-off is to ..." Sorry about that, Peg.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 28, 2017:

Hi Peg.

We're not actually "supporting" all of undocumented. The flow of illegal immigrants into the US from south of the border declined a result of the economic recession that began in 2008. And therein lies part of the answer...again, to discourage American employers from hiring undocumented workers. (This would also save a number of lives those who fall prey to the more bloodthirsty coyotes who treat human beings as disposable cargo.) Neither will that ill-conceived wall stop the inflow of drugs into the US; again, the issue is supply and demand. Most of the resolutions in dealing with illegal immigration do not rest with the wall, but north of it.

The anti-immigration movements in this country that encompassed both immigrants and refugees for over 100 years were born, in part, of prejudice against people who were Irish, Italian Catholic, Asian, Jewish and more. Now, the focus seems to be on Muslims and anyone south of the border. History keeps repeating itself.

I believe that most of Afghanistan's income is derived from international donors and funding. The US and European Union are two of the largest donors. It would take too long to explain why in one post, but the trade-off is to help Afghanistan implement desperately needed improvements in their standard of living to stave off the refugee crises. It's kind of like the Marshall Plan that took place after WW II.

Happy Saturday. :-)

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on January 28, 2017:

Hello Peg, For the sack of your health I urge you not to take on the Affordable Care Act. I don't think a team of CPA's with a big contract could decipher that mess. The U.S. government does not run efficiently - it is something where we all agree.

Educating people is always a plus to an economy.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 28, 2017:

Hello Mike, Thanks for the suggestion. I had originally planned to present the cost of the Affordable Care Act and ended up on this track about immigration. There are so many areas where improvement can be made in the way our government is spending money. I do hope that we are on the right track for getting it under control. I realize many hold different beliefs than those in the current administration, but I remain hopeful for us all.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 28, 2017:

Hello Maria, Thanks for the visit. I tried to present a variety of perspectives on this complex issue and hope I conveyed that there is no easy answer. Good to see you here. Peg

BODYLEVIVE from Alabama, USA on January 28, 2017:

I'm all for a secure border but I believe there are other alternatives to the solution.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 28, 2017:

It's always interesting to hear the viewpoints of others. Thank you for sharing yours, Peg.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on January 28, 2017:

Hi Peg - Here is a rabbit hole for you to investigate. The Iraq war was a trillion dollar adventure. Please don't let the topic of wasted government money completely wear you out.

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on January 28, 2017:

Dear Peg,

The depth and breadth of your work shows how complex this issue truly is.

Have a peaceful weekend. Love, Maria

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 28, 2017:

Hello Genna, We'll see if the wall, or fence as it exists in many areas, helps to stop the flow of those who are given false hope by predators who take their money and send them off into the desert to die a cruel death. If our country sees fit to increase the immigration numbers allowed per year, the process of entering this country might be better served. For me, the question comes up about how many people one nation can actually support.

I question why we send at a minimum, $5 Billion dollars per year to Afghanistan to pay the salaries of their security forces in a country ripe with corruption and at war for 30 years. That money could be used in much better ways.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on January 27, 2017:

Hello Peg - Just stopped by some light reading. You put a great deal of effort into this piece.

Genna East on January 27, 2017:

Sorry for the confusion, Peg. The main point I was addressing was, " There are many who say we stole the land from the American Indians that were here first. Of the million native tribal indigenous people who occupied this country, nearly 90% were wiped out by smallpox and other diseases that came with the early settlers." The article related to how the Conquistadors brought small pox and other diseases to the Americas, and devastated Inca, Aztec and other populations indigenous to Mexico, etc.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 27, 2017:

Thanks, Peg. By the way I almost forgot to mention...I don't think that $15 bil wall will work.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on January 27, 2017:

Hi Genna, It's good to see you here and no apologies necessary for the length of your comment. It was most interesting. I've been doing a lot of reading about the Native Americans and that is another story in itself. The small point I was making about their DNA was that originally, many thousands of years ago, they were also from somewhere else, thus, immigrants in a broad sense. For a fact, I have ancestors who were Cherokee and also have a grandmother who immigrated here from Vienna. My heart goes out to the tribes for the suffering they faced at the hands of early settlers and administrations who condoned the savagery and destruction of their way of life as well as the confiscation of their lands. Yes, it was a very sad and shameful part of our history as a nation.

You are astute to note that one of the first steps to fix the unlawful immigration is to monitor and penalize contractors who hire undocumented workers whose money is likely being remitted to their home country rather than invested in our economy. Along with those lines the levels of poverty in this country are sadly growing.

Again, thanks for your insightful comment and for adding your thoughts to this.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on January 27, 2017:

Interesting article, Peg. Thank you.

I think the article you referred to regarding smallpox related to the Conquistadors and their explorations and conquests in earlier centuries. We did steal land from Native Americans...we often refer to this murder, starvation, theft and devastation as "The Manifest Destiny" of the 19th century, and was couched in the belief that NA's were inferior to Christian beliefs and Western Civilization. Apart from the thousands of years that passed before they crossed over from the Asian bridge, NA's occupied these territories for centuries -- a fact of which our early settlers were not aware. Actually, they considered the "Indian savages" to be heathen and homogeneous. Disease did play some role in their demise, but for the Plains Indians, alone, tribes such as the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Comanche, Crow, suffered greatly under American expansionism, which manifested in their systematic, near eradication, and was one of the more shameful periods in our nation's history. Slavery was another.

The rules of immigration have always been complex. The history of the US's anti-immigrant movements in the past century, alone, were often based on the same fears: The levels of unemployment; that certain groups not would not blend in with the American way of life; political ramifications; threats to the existing economy. One of the key factors in discouraging illegal immigration is to start with employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. (I think you'd agree with me Peg in that people would be amazed to learn how many employers do not use an I-9 form during the hiring process -- especially in the construction sectors.)

What I find depressing is that 43 million people live in poverty in this country in accordance with 2015 US census estimates.

Those thresholds are pretty low:

$12,331 for a single individual under age 65

$14,326 a household of two people with a householder 65 years or older with no children

$24,036 for a family of four with two children under age 18

My apologies for the long-winded post, Peg. Have a great weekend. :-)

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