Alien Nation

Undocumented workers constitute the biggest political issue in Arizona. But do we want to send them packing?

"We know very little about impacts on the state level," Camarota tells New Times. "Besides that, Arizona's relationship with Mexican immigrants is different than that of most states."

Prop 200 supporters such as Pearce say that illegal immigrants cost Arizonans $1.4 billion a year, a number based on research by the Federation for Immigration Reform, a primary backer of the legislation.

The odds of that figure being close to correct are low. Pearce believes the number is "far too conservative," while several researchers interviewed for this article believe it's far too high -- if there's even any cost at all.

If all illegal immigrants from Mexico left, would Arizona's economy suffer a death blow?
Mark Poutenis
If all illegal immigrants from Mexico left, would Arizona's economy suffer a death blow?
Prop 200 opposition leader Alfredo Gutierrez
Prop 200 opposition leader Alfredo Gutierrez

"Those numbers are flawed," says UC-San Diego's Cornelius, "because they are based on a series of assumptions that just aren't true. For one, that study attributes to illegal immigrants costs that would accrue anyway. It throws in fire and police costs acting like we'd fire a bunch of firemen and police officers once illegal immigrants disappeared. This doesn't fit with reality."

More important, Cornelius points out, "most studies don't try to look at the benefits. Especially in Arizona, that's something you must consider."

He says these are the hard-to-quantify benefits of the children and grandchildren of immigrants often attaining higher levels of schooling and pay than their ancestors.

Camarota's study, based on the methodology of a landmark 1997 National Research Council study, does, however, reach some conclusions based on fairly reliable federal data.

Among the findings:

Houses headed by illegal immigrants cost the federal government $26.3 billion in services, while illegal immigrants pay in $16 billion in taxes. That's a net federal loss of $10.3 billion, or $2,700 per illegal immigrant.

Most of the costs are because of immigrants' American-born children, who are awarded U.S. citizenship at birth. (Thus, Camarota points out, efforts such as Prop 200 to block illegals from government programs will have little effect because their children who are citizens still will be able to gain access to the programs.)

On average, the costs that illegal households impose on federal coffers are less than half that of other households (an average legal household costs the government $15,101 a year). But the tax payments of illegals are only a quarter that of an average legal household, which pays in $15,099.

Here's the intriguing part:

If illegal aliens were given amnesty, a plan that has some support in both parties, the cost to taxpayers per household for the about eight million newly legalized citizens would nearly triple, from $2,700 to $7,700, for a total net cost of $29 billion.

Costs would increase dramatically, Camarota says, because unskilled immigrants with legal status -- what most illegal aliens would become -- can access government programs but still would tend to make very modest tax payments. Although legalization would increase average tax payments by 77 percent, the study predicts, average costs would rise by 118 percent.

Therefore, the only sensible purely economy-based policy would be to limit illegal immigrants by increasing border enforcement and, more important, begin enforcing federal laws barring businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, laws that now go virtually unenforced.

"We have been directed to focus on the border," Russell Ahr, an agent and spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Arizona, informs New Times.

"Real workplace enforcement would be critical to any serious policy to limit illegal immigration," Camarota says.

And here you begin to see the rift that has opened between policy and reality, between policy-makers and their constituents.

That rift starts in the workplace.

Deep inside the economic numbers is one of the dirty little secrets of illegal immigration.

Without illegal immigrants, America's Social Security and Medicare systems would be in much worse shape than they already are.

Camarota estimates that illegal immigrants pump a net benefit of $7 billion a year into Social Security and Medicare funds.

Here's what's happening:

The majority of illegal immigrants actually work "on the books," meaning they work for companies that send a percentage of their paychecks to Social Security and Medicare.

Weakened federal immigration laws, and the lack of workplace enforcement of these laws, make it easy for an illegal immigrant to get hired and for an employer to avoid punishment. Basically, if an illegal immigrant has a Social Security card, fraudulent or not, the employer can hire him and say he or she was shown proper documentation.

These fraudulent Social Security cards are actually a boon for the federal government.

That's because illegal immigrants are paying into Social Security and Medicare with no hope of ever collecting from those federal programs upon retirement.

New Times found that Social Security officials do an excellent job of avoiding policies that might stop this lucrative fraud.

For example, employers don't have to verify that a Social Security number given to them by an employee is legitimate.

The worker just starts working and the employer starts sending money to the federal government from the employee's paycheck under the worker's name and Social Security number.

"I truly believe that the majority of employers try to audit for fraud," says Marshall Whitehead, an immigration attorney who sits on the immigration subcommittee of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. "But there's no doubt it's not always that way. If you're short workers, you can get to where you hire whoever walks through the door with what look like the minimum number of proper documents."

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