Illegal Immigration – Problem or Opportunity?

June 30, 2011

Illegal immigration, which has become a hot topic nationally, resonates emotionally in states that attract the largest numbers of immigrants. The controversial law passed in Arizona that clamps down on illegal immigrants has been replicated with a few differences in Georgia. The immigration story is rooted in U.S. history, as waves of different nationalities helped settle the country. As a country of immigrants, what can we learn from our past experience? How can we move forward with policies that are wise, respectful to our national character and make-up, and economically responsible? The issue isn’t a simple one. While undocumented aliens may not pay income tax, they do contribute to the tax revenue base in other ways. In this issue we’re asking, “What is the best course of action to take on the issue of illegal immigration?”

Debating the issue are Shea Mize, lecturer in political science, and Rebecca Sims, assistant professor in political science. Mize will argue from the libertarian point of view and Sims from the liberal. For the purposes of this article, we define the following positions:

Libertarian: Believes in less government involvement in issues regarding social behavior and the economy
Conservative: Believes in more government involvement in social issues and less in economic ones
Liberal: Believes in less government involvement in social issues and more in the economy
Populist: Believes in more government involvement in both social and economic issues

The comments of our experts do not necessarily represent their personal opinions. Each graciously agreed to take one side of the argument for the debate’s sake.

Mize: I’m not creating a news flash when I say that the United States is in a precarious economic position. One major contributing factor is our large population of illegal immigrants. Nationally, there are about 38 million immigrants here, about a third of which are illegal, either because their visas have expired or they entered the country illegally in the first place. Here in Georgia, those who study the data believe there are about 930,000 immigrants, with slightly fewer than half being illegal – somewhere around 425,000. And they have a profound impact on the state. Yes, they contribute to the economy by between $215 and $253 million in sales, income and property taxes. But they cost us much more. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the state of Georgia spends an estimated $2.4 billion on illegal immigrants, mainly for education, healthcare, incarceration and deportation. We obviously need to take action to stem this kind of economic bleeding

Sims: Actually, the numbers I found put the illegal immigrant population in Georgia at about 480,000. Between 2000 and 2009, the illegal population in the state increased by 115 percent. That gives us the sixth largest population of illegal immigrants of any state in the U.S. (Mr. Mize says we’re ninth, but I believe we are sixth, if you take into account the latest census figures.) I’m not going to dispute all the economic figures Mr. Mize set forward, but I do think you have to look beyond just what we spend on undocumented citizens. The easiest way to do that is to look at Arizona and the aftermath of the law they passed last year. Some of the provisions of the law have already impacted that state. For example, the illegal aliens still in Arizona don’t go to the hospital or doctor when they are ill or injured for fear of being deported. But not doing so can create a health crisis if a communicable disease begins to spread because children haven’t been inoculated. This population doesn’t drive more than necessary – which some may see as a positive result – but it contributes to poverty if they don’t have transportation to and from a job, and poverty brings its own set of associated problems.

Illegal immigrants don’t report crimes because they don’t want to become part of an official record. They fear the police and American authorities. Drug deals, rapes, burglaries and many other crimes go unreported. Gang activity thrives in such an environment, and so do criminals who prey on such helpless victims. The black market becomes the prevailing market, making for an underground economy.

According to the Arizona Republic, a Phoenix daily newspaper, economic boycotts by activists or people who find the Arizona law too harsh have damaged the state’s image and cost the state millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue. Illegal families have left the state, taking with them their purchasing power and associated sales tax and rental revenue. Public schools have lost student enrollment, lowering their state allocations, which are based on head counts.

Arizona has lost 100,000 people, and just look what that has done to retail sales – down 10 percent in 2009. One egg producer said that his egg sales to Hispanic markets were down 20 percent.

Legislators touted the law, saying it would improve unemployment numbers, but they remain steady at 9.5 percent.

Mize: I might cede that illegal immigrants contribute to the economy. But they take much more than they give – and it’s costing us too much at a time when we need to get our debt and deficits under control. Take health care costs. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Georgia spends more than $317,600,000 a year on health care costs for illegal aliens. Who do you think pays for it? Ultimately, we do, through our medical insurance policies. Hospitals must recover the costs they spend on mandated care to uninsured people who come into the emergency room. They pass the costs along to the insurance companies, which in turn, pass it along to their customers.

But the lion’s share of tax payer costs for the illegal population is education. We spend $1.6 billion every year to educate children who are not U.S. citizens. The state contributes funding to K-12 education, but most of it comes from property taxes. And that’s where undocumented aliens really aren’t paying their share. According to the Georgia Department of Education, 51.26 percent of education funding comes from state property taxes and 41.34 percent from local property taxes, SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Sales Tax) dollars and the sale of school bonds. Only the SPLOST dollars would impact illegal immigrants. Schools with large Hispanic populations are given more state tax dollars to pay for English as a Second Language teachers and instructors; therefore, it takes money away from the native English speaking students.

Property tax totals are the lowest tax revenue segment of all types in the state. They total $85,744,000. Income tax – which many undocumented people don’t pay either – tops the revenue list at $7,021,855,000. So it’s clear to me that we should be collecting these taxes from that population if they are to stay. After all, if all employed illegal immigrants were actually paying taxes, not only would state revenues be higher, some of the resentment toward them would simply melt away. By some estimates, there are 153,000 illegal immigrant students in Georgia’s K-12 system. The estimated cost of $10,500 per child is passed along to taxpayers, so if you do the math, all of us who are here legally and who pay property taxes are subsidizing education for children who are here illegally by about $1.6 billion. That’s a lot of money, especially in this economy when public school systems have been enlarging classes, furloughing employees or cutting programs just to make ends meet. Ongoing state budget cuts have made the already daunting task of educating our children even more challenging.

Public higher education in Georgia, which also has absorbed huge budget cuts, has been in the news during the past year over undocumented students. Most famously, a Mexican honor student at Kennesaw State University, Jessica Colotl, was stopped for a traffic violation on campus, and couldn’t produce a valid driver’s license, ultimately resulting in her being sent to an immigration detention center. She had been brought to this country by her parents when she was 10 years old. When she was first admitted to KSU she was allowed to pay in-state tuition. Later the policy was changed, and she should have been paying out-of-state rates. While legal for undocumented students to attend most University System of Georgia institutions, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition, which more than covers their cost. Somehow, the KSU student had slipped through the cracks, setting off a storm of protests from around the state. Ultimately, the student was allowed to stay and finish her degree, but then was to be sent back to Mexico.

Editor’s note: Entering freshman in fall 2010 totaled about 50,000 students, 242 of which were undocumented. Undocumented doesn’t necessarily mean illegal, it may mean that students are waiting for documents or that they have misplaced them. Approximately .1 percent of all USG students are undocumented, according to the Board of Regents office.

Sims: Come on, Mr. Mize. Jessica Colotl came to this country with her parents when she was 10. She thinks of herself as an American. She was an honor student. Is she the kind of immigrant we want to send back to her native land? Besides being blatantly mean-spirited, it’s also short-sighted. We are a country of immigrants. Our energy and drive has originated from our immigrant population who came to this country with optimism, courage and enormous motivation to thrive. We would be foolish to throw away the kind of young people we really need to take us into this century as a continuing powerhouse. Look, I agree with you that money is a serious issue here, especially in the current economic climate. I guess where I come out is that we’re obviously going to have illegal immigrants here, so let’s figure out what to do about them. It seems practical to consider a way to levy state income taxes on them.

Additionally, we don’t want to do something rash that will have a negative impact on our economy. There have been a number of articles in the media about farmers in Vidalia now that harvesting season is underway for that region’s famous onion crop. Migrant workers, many of whom are illegal Mexicans, are avoiding Georgia. Farmers are reporting severe worker shortages despite raising wages. Some of the crops are rotting in the field. That kind of story may well be an unintended consequence of a severe crackdown on illegal immigrants. And here’s another consequence: in the case of the textile industry, another stalwart of the Georgia economy, we’ve seen much of that industry leave the state for cheaper labor overseas. Carpet mills and other textile manufacturers are not going to hire workers at the higher salaries demanded by legal citizens of Georgia. They have proven to us in the 1990s what they – and many other industries – will do: they will leave.

So, what to do? I say the only way to deal with the issue is financial. If we reduce the financial incentive for people to come here illegally by making it cost them, we might be able to stem the tide.

Mize: I agree with you there. Everything eventually seems to come down to money. But here’s the problem. Congress and state legislatures have been trying for decades to eradicate for illegal immigrants some of the promises we offer as a country – jobs, education, health care, freedom, land and safety. But that’s who we are, so immigrants just keep coming. All the solutions offered up to now like installing an impenetrable fence along the border, a crackdown on businesses and individuals who hire illegal workers, eliminating funding for educational institutions that allow illegal immigrants to attend, eliminating all government benefits to them, undertaking mass deportations, military intervention and many more have failed. The reason is that those particular solutions are merely treating the symptoms, not the disease.

So for me the simplest answer is to fix our southern neighbors. Mexicans represent the largest group of illegal aliens here by a large margin. And while Mexico is the 14th largest country in the world and will have the fifth largest economy by 2050, it possesses great extremes between poverty and wealth. It has wonderful educational resources. Its students, when compared to 30 of the world’s most developed nations, come in fourth in problem-solving, third in science and technology and eighth in mathematics. Most of those numbers are better than ours. So why the waves of immigrants here? Because they come from the poorest, rural border states, isolated from the rest of Mexico by mountains or deserts. There is grinding, abject poverty there. There is no access to education. Many can’t read or write. If they come to the U.S., their children will get a free education. Plus, they will have access to health care. And of course, they probably won’t be caught in the crosshairs of the thriving drug trade. What’s not to like?

We need to work with the Mexican and other Central American governments to alleviate these problems. It makes much more sense than our failed efforts of the past.

Sims: At last we agree wholeheartedly. I believe it would be one of the biggest pay-offs of any investment we could make. But we should go beyond that. Let’s get a realistic immigration reform law passed. One where a certain number of Central and South Americans can immigrate here legally and become citizens if they want. It’s well past time for good sense to prevail.

We invite your comments in our blog section below. Please remember that civility is important when stating your point of view. Comments that contain offensive language will be deleted. In our next issue we’ll discuss a subject very dear to our hearts – education in America.

One Response to Illegal Immigration – Problem or Opportunity?

  1. sandra on July 6, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    As a student at GHC, I’m glad that an immigration bill was finally passed in Georgia. I am not against anyone immigrating to the U.S. so long as they get permission first by following the immigration laws of this country. I worked for an immigration law firm for over ten years and saw it all. It is heartbreaking to see descent people come to this country with visas (permission) and spend thousands of dollars, which many don’t have, to go through all the red tape with Homeland Security so that they can legalize not only themselves but their families in hopes for a better future in the U.S. These folks not only pay their taxes but also their own healthcare expenses and shell out thousands of dollars in international tuition for their children to get a higher education. They generally do not commit crimes but contribute to the economy in a positive way by providing jobs and staying off welfare.

    Many of these “legal” immigrants feel the same as I do that everyone who comes to this country must follow the same immigration rules as they did by getting permission first. In many countries especially Mexico, if you cross their borders illegally you are immediately captured and put in jail because of strict immigration policies. Yet, in the U.S. it is politically incorrect to even ask for id. This country has turned a blind eye to this situation far too long and now these violators are demanding their rights. What rights? They entered our country illegally, have undermined our workforce, exploited our healthcare system to the point of bankruptcy and now have the audacity to demand the same entitlements as a natural-born citizen. If they want to attend college, then pay the international fees like the rest of the other immigrants who are here legally.

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