The hidden cost of illegal workers

Possibly the rush of illegal workers across the Mexican border has eased a little. That would please most Americans, since polls find that 3 out of 4 want immigration levels into the United States reduced.

If the flow has decreased, it would indicate some effect from strengthened patrols and a fence rising along the 2,000-mile border, a modest step-up in prosecutions and convictions of immigration-related crimes (many involve people caught in the US again after having been deported), and recent, highly publicized raids on factories employing large numbers of illegal immigrants.

At the border, apprehensions are down, notes Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington-based group that supports more immigration restrictions. But so far, he adds, no solid statistics indicate whether the estimated pool of 11 million to 12 million illegal residents in the US is shrinking or still increasing. (In 1970, one estimate put America's "undocumented" residents at a mere 700,000.)

The cure for illegal immigration is "not difficult," says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. The government simply has to sternly enforce the laws against hiring illegals. If jobs for these foreign-born workers dry up, he says, so will their flow into the US.

As he and Mr. Krikorian see it, the plant raids are primarily meant to persuade Congress to act on President Bush's proposed law to create a large guest-worker program and a route for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. "A few cosmetic [enforcement] items," says Mr. Rector, who regards the Bush proposal as an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Once the plan was in place, enforcement of immigration law would practically cease, he says, as happened after the last amnesty in 1986. That law wasn't enforced, Rector says, because of a "bizarre coalition" of Democrats, who hoped to "import" future Democratic voters, and business and industrial groups who wanted cheap, flexible employees.

One Democrat in that coalition, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, has been critical of the recent raids, such as one earlier this month at a leather goods factory in New Bedford, Mass.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "turned its efforts to end unauthorized employment and illegal immigration into a spectacle in which the results are separated families, silent transfers in the middle of the night, traumatized children, and hundreds of people stranded without proper legal representation," Senator Kennedy wrote in a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who oversees ICE.

To Rector of the Heritage Foundation, America has to be tough on illegal immigration. He figures at least a billion people worldwide would like to live in the US. But that toughness needs primarily to be aimed at employers of illegals, not at illegals themselves. "There have to be serious consequences to employers for hiring illegals," he says. Such firms could be readily located, since about half of illegals use fake Social Security numbers that can be detected by the Social Security Administration, he adds.

Reflecting the public's concern, Congress has been striving to deal with immigration. CIS's Krikorian suspects the Senate will pass an immigration bill that would let illegals stay and eventually get citizenship. But he doubts the bill will get past the House, where an amnesty is the "kiss of death" – a guarantee that Democrats will lose their majority in the next election.

Rector worries about the costs of opening the country to a new flood of immigrants. A proposed Senate measure. "would be financially ruinous for the United States," he charges.

Rector calculated that a bill passed by the Senate last year would have increased the number of immigrants gaining legal status over the next 20 years by 55 million to 60 million. Most of those immigrants probably would have less than a high school education. And since low-skilled individuals, legal or illegal, cost the government much more than they pay in taxes, Uncle Sam would be out-of-pocket $70 billion a year.

Rector calculates that the average household of a high school dropout pays about $9,600 in taxes, including payroll, sales, excise, possibly income (often offset by the Earned Income Tax Credit), property, etc. That same household receives about $32,000 a year in government services. These include Social Security, Medicare, education, welfare, highways, police and fire protection, etc.

The US should select its immigrants, preferably from among the well-educated who pay more in taxes than they receive in government benefits, Rector says. Neither he nor Krikorian says it's necessary to expand guest-worker programs to provide employers with more employees.

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center struck a blow at existing guest-worker programs, and perhaps Mr. Bush's proposal, with a detailed report concluding that guest workers are "close to slavery." They are paid little, routinely cheated out of wages, forced to live in squalid conditions, and held virtually captive by employers who seize their documents. It's an "untenable situation ... not morally acceptable," says Mary Bauer, author of the report.

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