Tennessee lawmakers leading a push against illegal immigration say it’s costing the state roughly $500 million a year — about the same amount spent to keep the entire city government in Metro Nashville chugging for four months.
But other policy experts argue that number exaggerates the case and take issue with its underlying assumptions.
At the center of the legislative effort targeting illegal immigration is Rep. Joe Carr, a Lascassas Republican sponsoring three related measures in the House.
One would require businesses to check the immigration status of prospective employees, using the federal E-Verify program. Another would require the state to check a person’s legal status before letting the person receive certain state benefits. And a third “Arizona-style” measure would have police check the documents of suspected illegal immigrants, turning over those deemed unlawful to federal officials.
Carr unveiled the three proposals at a press conference in February, saying, “According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are over 140,000 illegals in Tennessee, costing the Tennessee state taxpayers a net of $496 million a year.”
That estimate of half a billion dollars is actually not from Pew, but from a group called the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform. FAIR describes itself as nonpartisan, though some argue it has an anti-immigration slant. The Washington, D.C.-based group’s membership, according to its mission statement, consists of “concerned citizens who share a common belief that our nation’s immigration policies must be reformed to serve the national interest.”
FAIR finds the greatest cost driver from illegal immigrants to be education — the teachers, overhead and other costs associated with providing schooling for the children of illegal immigrants.
“Education for the children of illegal aliens constitutes the single largest cost to taxpayers, at an annual price tag of nearly $52 billion. Nearly all of those costs are absorbed by state and local governments,” according to FAIR.
Pinning down a firm estimate of the cost of illegal immigration is tough, in part because no one knows just how many students are in the state without permission. A bill by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, proposes schools try to help gather that kind of data.
There’s also the question of who really counts as a legal citizen. If a married couple entering the U.S. without permission brings a child, then the law deems that child to be here illegally. But if that same couple has a child born in the United States, then under the 14th Amendment the baby is automatically granted citizenship. Carr finds this debatable, saying the amendment leaves open a question of jurisdiction, which he’d like to see spelled out in court.
Because he’s not convinced the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. are rightfully here, Carr, when tallying up the total impact of illegal immigration, factors in the cost of educating those so-called “birthright citizens” – as does FAIR.
A 2010 report from FAIR uses an estimated U.S. total of 13 million illegal immigrants – itself a slippery number to gauge, as compared to Pew’s estimate of 11 million. FAIR extrapolates that there are almost a million illegal immigrants in American schools, and figures the country also pays to teach another 2.5 million of their siblings who were born in the U.S.
Counting the two groups together, FAIR estimates just shy of 30,000 Tennessee students are the children of illegal immigrants, costing the state more than $280 million.
Researchers behind a 2007 study (pdf) from the state comptroller’s office didn’t hazard to guess Tennessee’s cost or the number of students here illegally, using instead the previous year’s total of 26,707 English Language Learners “as a rough estimate of unauthorized aliens in the schools, although the number also includes legal aliens.”
Susan Mattson authored that report. She agrees that education is one of the main drivers behind state spending for illegal immigrants, but points out that whether a student is here legally or not, federal law insists they receive a free education.
The state report also hinted at potential economic gains from illegal immigrants.
“We found studies in Texas and Arkansas that were showing a small positive benefit of unauthorized aliens on their economy overall,” Mattson said in an interview with TNReport. “Now, these include the economic impacts also of that population: on their productivity, their wages, and consumption – what they’re spending.”
Since most of Tennessee’s revenue comes from a sales tax, consumers pay into the state’s coffers any time they make a purchase, whether they’re here legally or not.
Carr argues that even so, unauthorized workers tend to lack good educations and lucrative careers, so what they’re paying back hardly offsets their cost to the state. Citing the report from FAIR, Carr says the state gets about $50 million in taxes paid by illegal immigrants and spends $546 million in services for them – yielding a loss of roughly half a billion dollars.
The report’s methodology has drawn some backlash from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which says FAIR bends the math to advance a racist agenda.
“FAIR is notorious for never counting the tax benefits of the undocumented in the United States,” says center Research Director Heidi Beirich. “So they don’t take into account the pluses from this population.They only look at the negatives in terms of social spending.”
But FAIR dismisses that allegation, with a spokesman firing back that the SPLC has an agenda of its own.
For his part, Carr says he’s been careful not to put too much stock in FAIR’s findings. He says he’s spent literally hundreds of hours researching the issue and culling data from a variety of sources.
“Matter of fact,” Carr says of the $500 million cost estimate, “I think it’s probably low.”
More Hearings Scheduled
The Tennessee Tea Party posted on Facebook recently that Carr was looking for help: “A compromise may be in the works with Gov. Haslam that would water these bills down. Please call and email Gov. Haslam and urge him not to go soft on this legislation,” the post read.
Carr’s three bills are scheduled to go before the full House State and Local Committee on Tuesday, having passed together in that subcommittee late last month.
The subcommittee spent most of its time on a measure that would make employers verify the legal status of new hires, HB1378. Several business lobbyists stated their dismay with the measure, though Carr says he’s already made numerous concessions to them.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey later told reporters that lawmakers are trying to work with business interests, who would prefer such verification be voluntary, but he doubts any compromise will leave them completely happy.
The Senate version of the measure has passed out of the Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee and is now on its way to the Judiciary Committee.
Carr has said he still has work to do on the other two immigration measures he’s carrying. He said they have little chance of passing in their current form because fiscal notes estimate they’d cost the state millions of additional dollars, with one saying that while the legislation aims to cut costs by denying benefits to illegal immigrants, how much money would be saved “cannot be reasonably determined.”