06 July 2006

The Immigration Crisis That Isn't.

Governor Owens is bummed. Democrats just can't seem to understand that his urgent call to prevent state and local spending on non-emergency, non-federally mandated services to illegal immigrants isn't really a state problem. Now, it's just a local problem.

Owens . . . told the committee that state government was the wrong place to look for the costs of services provided to illegal immigrants.

"Local government costs are a significant part of what we're dealing with when you deal with the costs of illegal immigration, and if you ask the wrong question, you're going to get the wrong answer," Owens said.

He told the committee that it should ask locally elected district attorneys, county commissioners, mayors, sheriffs and others to explain how illegal immigration is diverting local tax dollars away from law-abiding citizens.

Owens brought along a group of local officials to testify on the costs.

In other words: "Look, over there, la la la la la."

No State Problem

The Denver Post's front page banner headline was: "Legislators in dark on immigrant costs." This was generous. There were answers at yesterday's hearings. Most of them, from Owen's appointees and from his hand picked witnesses, were that there isn't a problem at the state level that the state legislature should or can fix, and that there isn't a clear one at the local level either.

Owens brought along a group of local officials to testify on the costs. But when it came to assessing the costs of services, Owens' witnesses said the figures would be difficult to calculate. . . .

One after another, top Owens administration officials and leaders of executive and judicial branches of government said they didn't have an exact number. Some provided an estimate. Others didn't even try to do that.

Marva Livingston Hammons, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, estimated her department spends $3.5 million annually on services to illegal immigrants, including adult and child-protective care.

But the bulk of her department's spending - about $2 million - is on youth corrections services, a cost that wouldn't be cut because of public-safety concerns.

At the same time, she estimated that it would cost $1.5 million for her department to beef up its screening process to weed out illegal immigrants.

Officials from the Department of Corrections said they spent $39.4 million on foreign-born inmates in 2004-05, but they could not break out how much was spent on illegal immigrants. And no one suggested that convicted criminals should be released or deported before serving their sentences in Colorado.

Dennis Ellis, executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, said the exact costs in his department are unknown. Some programs - such as clean air or advertising to discourage smoking - cover every resident of the state.

And other services, such as immunizations to prevent the spread of diseases, are integral for protecting the public.

. . . .

Some departments did not assess how much it would cost to beef up enforcement of immigration laws. . . . Buescher said it was "disappointing" that the revenue department didn't have a cost estimate of a proposal that lawmakers have been discussing for weeks.

More details can be found here. For example: "The Department of Higher Education testified that illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal and state financial aid, including work-study programs, student loans and Pell Grants. Colorado is among a number of states that does not offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants."

The Governor is confused. Maybe he should talk to Democratic Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff. This young fellow is up on all the latest new laws. For example, Romanoff reminds us that:

Federal law prohibits state and local governments from providing "any retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit" to unauthorized residents. (The federal law contains exceptions for K-12 education, immunizations, emergency medical care, and a number of other mandated services.)

So, why exactly do we need new state laws to duplicate this one?

No Local Problem

Local governments raise money through property taxes, sales taxes and user's fees. No one has ever alleged that illegal immigrants aren't paying their share of these taxes.

The largest share of local government spending and employment goes to local school boards. As we all know, that U.S. Supreme Court has put that off limits, and most of the children attending those schools who are children of illegal immigrants are themselves U.S. citizens anyway.

Governor Owens told the Joint Budget Committee that it needs to talk to local District Attorneys and Sheriffs.

Presumably, this is so they can explain how they offer non-emergency services and the state of Colorado should immediately being to cease evicting, jailing and prosecuting illegal immigrants who don't pay their rent or commit crimes. Mayors across the state can come and testify about how it the state needs to immediately require garbage collectors to confirm citizenship papers of everyone who put things into a dumpster before picking it up, and about the feasibility of denying use of public sidewalks to illegal immigrants. County commissioners can testify about the horrible burden places on them by processing license plate applications and real estate filings on a fee for service basis by illegal immigrants, and about the urgent need for a state mandate to require them to put citizenship checkpoints at the entry point to every county road.

If the Governor believes this, he is a lunatic.

About the Constitution You Are Sworn To Uphold

Governor Owens also seems to hate the United State Constitution he is sworn to uphold. Or maybe he hasn't read parts like the 14th Amendment, that make everyone born in the United States. Owen's called the American-born children of illegal immigrants "anchor babies." The U.S. Constitution calls them American citizens.


Governor Owens and the Republican legislators behind the anti-immigration tempest in a teapot he has tried to provoke aren't really stupid. They are simply cynical. They know, indeed, we have heard it from Governor Owens himself, that illegal immigrants are not unduly taxing the public purse. The Republicans aren't interested in solving problems. Instead, they want to instill irrational fear in voters in the hope that it will encourage them to vote Republican.

The truth of the matter is that illegal immigrants are the Republican party's dream employees, they don't vote, they avoid litigation or complaints about labor conditions, they almost never unionize, they don't use public services nearly as much as everyone else, they create small businesses, they are 25% less likely to be unemployed, they are a third less likely to be in prison, and they honor their families and live below their means by sending an average of 6% of their meager incomes (about $2,000 a year on average out of an average $27,000) back home in remittances every year.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented immigrant adult men ages 18-44 are more likely to be in the labor force than U.S. natives - 92 percent versus 88 percent.

If every illegal immigrant employee were replaced overnight by a legal citizen with a comparable income, the state budget would balloon, because citizens with that income level pay only about $100 more per person in state and local taxes (primarily income taxes) and receive far more services from government than illegal immigrants do.

"Social Security's chief actuary estimates that about three quarters of undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes."

The best way to stop what money problems exist is to legitimatize those who are already here. It is an artificial problem with an artificial solution. Immigration isn't a problem in terms of the money spent by government.

Xenophobic reactions to immigration have historically been the same whether the immigration is legal or not. And, they are based on false premises, like a fear that immigrants won't assimilate.

These fears aren't fact based either. For example, almost all non-English speakers are first generation immigrants. A majority of illegal immigrants have been in the United States less than a decade. By the second generation, the vast majority of immigrant descendants are either bilingual or predominantly English speaking. By the third generation, the vast majority of immigrant descendants are dominantly English speaking.

A Matter of Faith

My sense of the need not to demonize immigrants, regardless of the nation's immigration rules, is rooted in my secular values. But, Colorado's Catholic bishops, Archbishop of Denver, the Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput and bishop of Colorado Springs, the Most Reverend Bishop Michael J. Sheridan, share my moral concerns.

Catholics and other people of faith do have a common set of principles that should inform all our thinking. Immigration reform is not merely a policy debate. It's a profoundly moral issue. The measure of a just society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.

Scripture reminds us that "You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently from the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt." (Leviticus 19:33- 34)

For Christians, the "common good" is a fundamental and permanent principle of our social teaching. When it comes to Colorado and its laws, the common good requires legislation that enables both employers and workers to earn an adequate living without deceit or fear.

We need to resist proposals that emphasize enforcement at the expense of real reform. Punishing criminals is justice. That's a good thing. But turning poor people who seek a dignified existence for their families into criminals in order to punish them is not justice. It's both foolish and wrong. We fully support security policies that target real threats to our peace. But that should not require that we push further into the shadows some of the very workers who are strengthening and building our country.

Illegal immigration is a serious matter, but it should never be a felony. Persons of goodwill - no matter what their faith - instinctively search for solutions that favor a spirit of solidarity.

Our common humanity transcends borders. It invites us to think and act in ways that are just, not punitive. That includes our lawmaking.

The people of Colorado have a deep sense of decency and fairness. This decency - even more than the vast natural beauty of our state - is what makes Colorado great.

We ask all Coloradans to call upon our elected officials to focus on immigration without the political maneuvering that so easily overshadows reality. The laws passed by this year's special session will have a direct effect on the treatment and dignity of the human beings among us who are immigrants. As citizens, we will be responsible for those laws.

If we let common sense and good policy drive out the ugly partisan politics that can infect special sessions, we'll have a beneficial debate. We need to promote dignity, not punishment. And real reform is more than just another word for "enforcement."

The Catholic Church should be lauded about looking beyond abortion when expressing moral concern. Our state's Protestant leaders have been comparatively silent. It is funny, however, that the GOP, which usually cares about the position of the Catholic Church, doesn't seem to care too much on this issue.

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