Written by Patti Brown
When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate File 1070 into law last Saturday she energized the national debate about illegal immigration. For more than two years that debate has effectively been dormant.
Arizona’s new law, which will go into effect in July, requires law enforcement officials, state agencies and political subdivisions (counties, cities, school districts, community college districts, water districts and the like) to assist in the enforcement of existing federal immigration laws. The law requires that a person requesting any type of public benefit present proof of their citizenship or immigrant status.
The new law also establishes crimes related to illegal immigration, to the employment of people unauthorized to be in the United States, and to knowingly transporting illegal immigrants.
Marches and rallies billed as “immigrant workers’ rights” events are planned across the country tomorrow –May Day, a traditional day of worker protest– in reaction to the Arizona law. Mayors and city councils in several states are jumping on a “boycott Arizona” bandwagon in response to the law which, on careful reading, simply mandates that federal immigration laws will be upheld in Arizona.
Critics on record include President Obama, who has called the law misguided, Karl Rove, who expressed concerns that the law may not be constitutional, and even former GOP presidential candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colorado-R) who supports the law, but questions if it will result racial profiling. National and international media have been hyperventilating over the measure and even the Arizona Diamondbacks were the object of protest at Wrigley Field Thursday afternoon.
Scope of the illegal immigration problem
The problem of illegal immigration is complex. It is estimated that there are approximately 10.8 million people in the country illegally. Half of these arrived legally but have overstayed their visas. The other half are people who entered without authorization. An exact count of how many people are here illegally is impossible to know because of the nature of the problem: people who are here illegally do not show up on official census registers.
The number of those in the country without authorization is believed to have declined from a high of 12 million two years ago. This is due a variety of reasons. Fewer people are attempting to enter the U.S. illegally than two years ago, and a higher percentage of those who are trying to cross the border illegally are apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and subsequently deported.
In 2008, 800,000 people were arrested trying to cross the border, down from an estimated 1.2 million in 2006. For every person apprehended, as many as four escape being caught. More than 97 percent of apprehensions were made along the southwest border, with a quarter million occurring in the Tucson Sector. In just the Tucson Sector, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s busiest region, an estimated 1 million people cross the border illegally placing an enormous strain on the communities in southern Arizona and throughout the state.
Economic modeling shows that many undocumented individuals have left the country in the past two years due to a series of intimidating immigration raids, such the December 12, 2006 raid in Marshalltown and the May 12, 2008 Postville raid. The US economy has also dried up many job opportunities for illegal aliens, the official U.S. terminology for persons who are in the U.S. without authorization.
Last year, more than $22 billion in American money was sent home to Mexico by foreign nationals working in the United States. Remittances are the second-largest source of income for Mexico next to oil exports. The average amount of a remittance sent home to Mexico is $324.27, with some 6 million money transfers from the U.S. to Mexican banks being made monthly. Effectively, people who have come into the country illegally end up off-loading American dollars to other countries through remittances.
The situation in Iowa
Arizona’s problem is enormous. The state’s population is 6.9 million, the number of illegal immigrants is estimated to be about 460,000 and they are facing a $3.5 billion budget deficit this year.
In comparison, Iowa’s population is smaller, 3.3 million, and the estimated number of illegal immigrants two year ago was 55,000 to 80,000. Although Iowa’s problem isn’t as large as it is in one of the southern border states, illegal immigration in Iowa is, nevertheless, complex.
Of the 55,000 or more undocumented individuals in Iowa, an estimated 9,000 to 13,500 are children 18-years of age and under. In addition another 12,000 children have been born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants living in Iowa.
A decade ago Gov. Tom Vilsack feared that Iowa’s population of 2.8 million was stagnant and that the state would need more low-skilled workers –some 310,000– to take jobs in meat packing plants and to work as nurses’ aids in care centers. Vilsack’s “Iowa 2010 Plan” strategically recruited workers from Mexico and Central America to come to Iowa, which was being referred to as “an immigration enterprise zone.” The recruitment process was less concerned with the technicalities of legal immigration than growing the state’s population with a serf labor class. As the immigrants began arriving and settling into many rural towns across the state, including Postville and Marshalltown, Iowa officials looked the other way on the question of legal residency.
Today, instead of having a low unemployment rate, Iowa struggles with an unemployment rate of 6.8 percent. In March, 114,600 Iowans were unemployed, up from 111,900 in February, and up from 91,300 a year ago.
On top of 10 percent across the board cuts made with an accounting Sawzall to the 2010 budget, the Iowa Legislature attempted to reorganize state government in order to save money. Despite the effort, Iowa is looking at a $1 billion spending gap for 2011 according to Iowa State Auditor David Vault. Hit especially hard are local school districts have, many of whom will have to increase property taxes as one step to make ends meet.
Many of those school districts have illegal immigrant students enrolled, or children born in the U.S. to parents in the country without authorization. The open enrollment per pupil cost of $5,546 per year for public K-12 schooling in Iowa, making the cost of educating undocumented children between $49,914,000 and $74,871,000 annually. In addition the cost of educating the estimated 12,000 children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants is $66,552,000.
Since the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case of Plyer v. Doe, school are not allowed to ask if a child has legal status, and are, therefore, prohibited from denying K-12 schooling to children who are residents in their school district. Perhaps this may change in Arizona with the new immigration law enforcement legislation, or perhaps it will be further defined by the Supreme Court for the states.
In addition to education, low-skilled illegal immigrants place many demands on community safety net resources for housing, food assistance and medical care. The national poverty rate for the children of illegal immigrants nearly twice as high as for children born to legal immigrants or U.S. citizens.
The number of people who want to come to America is staggering. Considering that last year 13.6 million people applied for the 55,000 visas given annually by lottery, an increase of 4.5 million people the year before, the discussion about immigration reform must begin.
People who respect the rule of law must not be castigated as xenophobes because they want immigration to occur in a lawful manner.
Policy decisions must be made about how many immigrants with different skill set are needed on an annual basis. An equitable system needs to be put in place to provide visas to people from around the world who want to come to America, and the system must not favor those who have broken U.S. laws to jump ahead of people who have applied and are waiting in line.
Employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants must face sanctions and fines for doing so.
Before any serious policy decisions can be made about the 10 million or more illegal immigrants who are already in the U.S., the federal government must provide the resources to secure the border and to prevent people from crossing it without authorization.
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