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Controversial immigration law sparks debate about undocumented workers

By Solly Granatstein
Rock Center

Reporting Rock Center’s upcoming story about Alabama’s controversial new immigration law, our team found this to be one of the key questions being debated: Are undocumented immigrants a drain on public finances or a boon to the economy? The two opposing sides each can cite studies and statistics to bolster their own argument.

Those in favor of a crackdown, such as Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, maintain that Alabama spends some $300 million per year on public services for undocumented immigrants, most of it on education for the children of the undocumented. That widely-cited figure comes from a calculation by the anti-illegal immigration group Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), which argues that the taxes collected from undocumented immigrants “do not come close to the level of expenditures.” This study also cites previous surveys showing a slight lowering of wages among Americans on the bottom of the economic ladder because of immigration.

Immigration advocates, on the other hand, cite studies showing the usually long-term benefits of immigration, even when the immigrants have entered the country illegally. One such study, by a UCLA professor, estimates the American economy would grow by an extra $1.5 billion if undocumented immigrants were able to become legal residents.  Another study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) finds that, contrary to what anti-immigration advocates contend, immigrants contribute to a slight rise in wages for native workers overall. Keep in mind that EPI is a think tank with significant sponsorship from organized labor, which isn’t an automatic ally of increased immigration.

In Alabama, we came across manual workers who believed they had been beaten out of jobs by undocumented immigrants who were willing to work for less pay. Republican State Senator Scott Beason lists securing jobs for native Alabamians as his prime motivation for sponsoring the state’s immigration law in the first place. On the other side, we met farmers and landscapers throughout the state who all said they’d tried and failed to find Americans who would or could do the tough physical farm work normally carried out by undocumented migrants. All the farmers also said they take out social security, workman’s comp and unemployment insurance from the paychecks of the undocumented migrants, who, they assumed, provided false social security numbers. That would mean that these undocumented immigrants would be contributing to funds from which they would never benefit. Rather than them draining the system, the system appeared to be draining them.

We also spent time with an undocumented family from Mexico. A mother and father, two children born in Mexico and their youngest, a U.S. citizen born since they arrived in Alabama. Eight years ago, they had risked their lives to walk across the Sonoran desert to get to the United States. They told us they wanted to escape the danger of Ciudad Juarez, one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and to make a better life for their children. In Alabama, the parents both worked full-time during the day and sold bread door-to-door at night. Eventually, they were able to open a modest bakery. Their kids attend public schools, but they also say they pay income tax using federal tax ID numbers, as opposed to social security numbers, and all the taxes associated with their business. (They showed us one of their municipal business tax returns but declined to do so with their income tax returns.)

Our report, airing Monday, introduces a complex question. Given that both sides can marshal ample evidence to back up their own arguments, deciding who is right may have less to do with raw data than with the personal experiences and political inclinations one brings to this contentious issue.