Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Immigration hysteria

Laws written in the heat of anger or suspicion are nearly always repented in sorrow and at long last repealed in shame. That was Arkansas’ experience with Amendment 44, the interposition law that was put on the ballot and ratified in 1956 to stop court-ordered desegregation of the schools. Voters repealed it 34 years later but not until it had cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and untold embarrassment.

The experience will almost surely be repeated if a proposed initiated act seeking to punish Hispanics who reach Arkansas unlawfully gets on the ballot and becomes law. A group calling itself Secure Arkansas filed the proposal with the attorney general, who may require some modifications before petitions can be circulated to put the measure on the general-election ballot.

It would direct state and local officials to stop people who are not legal residents of Arkansas from obtaining public benefits that are provided by the federal, state or local governments. Every person applying for benefits of any kind would have to sign an affidavit under penalty for perjury certifying that they are lawful residents of the United States, which is something like the loyalty affidavit that Arkansas teachers and public employees had to sign to keep their jobs in the early ‘60s before the U. S. Supreme Court struck it down.

“Keeping illegal aliens from getting on public assistance just any time they want to and taking all of our taxpayer funds, that’s really what it’s all about,” the chair of the group explained.

That’s innocent enough, isn’t it? But the explanation distorts the real problem that the growth of undocumented workers and their families presents. They are not overwhelming the public treasury but, if anything, contributing significantly to it. For example, FICA withholdings from illegal workers, from which most of them will never benefit, are fattening the Social Security and Medicare trust funds and postponing the day when both those beleaguered funds will no longer be able to pay full benefits. Immigrants are not driving up the food-stamp rolls (depressed wages are) and government agencies are not reporting large increases in any form of public assistance arising from Hispanic workers.

A study by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation concluded that aliens, both legal and illegal, had a net $2.9 billion economic impact on the state in 2004 and generated 23,100 new jobs. Much of that economic activity finds its way into state and local treasuries that support the schools, police and highways. A business study in Oklahoma last month concluded that a punitive Oklahoma law that seeks to drive immigrants from the state is costing the state and its businesses billions of dollars.

The influx of Hispanics who crossed the border illegally has indeed generated problems, not the least of which is the burden on many schools of coping with large numbers of children with language barriers. The proposed act would do nothing to solve that problem unless it were to succeed — it won’t — in driving tens of thousands of them across the state borders.

A greater societal — or economic — issue is the extent to which an expanding pool of eager and hardworking laborers depresses wages. That unquestionably is a reality, although that, too, is rife with myth. A foe of immigrants showed up at a press conference Monday at Little Rock to insist that Mexican laborers were being hired at $3.50 an hour by contractors at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences campus and costing good white people the jobs. Three-fifty is hardly more than half the state minimum wage. Contractors are fined and punished by the loss of contracts if they pay not just below the minimum wage but the much higher prevailing wage for the area.

Immigration is a responsibility of the national government and it must legislate a national solution. Piecemeal state and local laws move the problems around, distort and compound them, and that is particularly true of private initiatives that are crafted upon premises of fear, hearsay and myth.