Getting Rid of Illegals Wouldn't Be So Easy
Five years ago, most conversations about illegal immigrants in North Carolina focused on how to better serve and integrate them. They were considered an important part of the state's work force.
But in the past two years, talk has shifted to the problems that illegal immigrants create and, in many cases, the best ways to rid the state of illegal residents.
In the current climate, many politicians are rushing to see who can appear toughest on immigration.
Interviewed for this story were two experts: William Ford, an economist at Middle Tennessee State University, who has studied the impact of immigrants on the economy; and Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that pushes for stricter limits on immigration.
Asked whether the United States could deport 12 million illegal immigrants even if it wanted to, Ford and Krikorian agreed that forcibly evicting all illegal immigrants is logistically impossible.
Ford said that each deportation would cost, at a minimum, $10,000. That adds up to a tab of $120 billion, if the estimates of the illegal immigrant population are accurate.
The United States has only about 2.5 million jail beds, about 95 percent of which are full, Ford said.
"Where are you going to put 12 million people, and how much would it cost and how much law enforcement resources would come off all kinds of other crimes?" Ford said. "There's no way you could do it."
But Krikorian said there is an alternative: encouraging illegal immigrants to, essentially, deport themselves.
"We can make it clear that the party is over and they need to go home," Krikorian said.
He said state and federal officials can do that by stepping up the number of deportations and by making it more difficult for illegal immigrants to find jobs, get driver's licenses, open bank accounts, get mortgages and rent homes. He said this strategy is already working in Arizona.
Who should enforce immigration laws? What should state and local officials do about immigration, which is legally a federal responsibility?
Krikorian said local governments can play a key role in forcing out illegal immigrants.
States can make it difficult for illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, which North Carolina has already done. They can pass English-only ordinances or go after employers who hire illegal immigrants. He pointed to a new law in Arizona that forces businesses to check the immigration status of new hires.
But Ford argues that pushing out illegal immigrants should remain the province of the federal government.
Ford said that using local police to root out illegal immigrants, as some North Carolina counties are doing, unnecessarily taps local taxpayers for a federal responsibility. And he said limiting driver's licenses only puts more uninsured drivers on the road.
The two agree that voters should be wary of a couple of campaign promises.
Some politicians have pushed for ordinances that limit public services --- such as welfare, food stamps and use of health clinics and libraries -- for illegal immigrants. But it's already difficult for illegal immigrants to access most public programs.
And those resources they do use, such as public schools and hospitals, cannot be legally denied to them. Krikorian said those types of ordinances are toothless, mostly symbolic measures. Ford said they are inhumane.
"Yes, they get some services," he said. "They get emergency services if they're having a baby or a heart attack. They get education for their children. Do we want to deny them that?"
Some candidates have also said that they will require law-enforcement agencies to join a federal program, known as 287(g), which allows them to detain and begin deportation proceedings on immigrants who commit crimes.
The federal government has a waiting list of departments that want to join this program.
It does not have the manpower or the funding to collaborate with every agency in North Carolina.
Taking Our Jobs?
Are illegal immigrants needed in the U.S. job market, or are they taking jobs that Americans want?
Ford said simple arithmetic is enough to prove that illegal immigrants have become a vital part of the U.S. economy. Without illegal immigrant workers, he said, the United States would be short 5.8 million workers.
At the end of 2007, Ford said, about 7.3 million Americans were unemployed. But economists generally agree that because there will always be people between jobs, unemployment cannot go lower than about 6.1 million people, or 4 percent. That leaves 1.2 million American workers available to fill the slots of 7 million illegal immigrants who hold jobs in the United States, Ford said.
Krikorian said there are at least 20 million Americans who are unemployed but not looking for work, so they aren't counted in unemployment statistics. But even if those people don't want to take the jobs of illegal immigrants, Krikorian said, an economy can prosper regardless of the size of its worker pool.
He said low-skill workers add so little to economic prosperity that their loss would hardly be felt, although he admitted that some individual businesses would suffer during the transition.
If farmers and other businesses have less cheap labor, Krikorian said, they raise salaries, recruit more Americans and learn to work more efficiently.
"When you have lots of cheap labor," he said, "you use it in a sloppy and inefficient way."
More like this story