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State Costs From Illegal Immigration Disputed

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.”

Education

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.

Taxes

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.”

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Education Reform Mood a Likely Boon to Tennessee Charter Schools

It’s boom times for charter schools in Tennessee.

With a sympathetic GOP controlling state government and several proposals in the Legislature aiming to lift restrictions on the alternative public schools, charter school advocates appear to have the political wind at their backs.

Not only do charter schools have solid scores of Republicans in their corner, but they have Gov. Bill Haslam spearheading the very ideas that top their legislative wish list, plus a new education commissioner who comes from a background that parallels the kind of outside-the-box thinking they thrive on.

“Over the next four or five years, I think statewide we’re probably going to average eight to 10, maybe 12 charter schools a year,” says Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Advocates for charter schools and the school-choice model are scheduled to spend Wednesday at Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers who have over the last month considered other policy changes for Tennessee’s education system.

On the association’s agenda: lift the cap on number of charter schools, allow the state to OK new schools and open up student eligibility. They also want to make it easier for the schools to borrow money to purchase larger school spaces and create more flexibility around application deadlines.

Next school year, Tennessee will be home to some 40 public charter schools – 25 in Memphis, 11 more in Nashville, three in Chattanooga and one in Knoxville. The big four cities will drive most of the growth in charters, according to Throckmorton, but their suburbs may also host a few.

Charter schools are relatively new to Tennessee. The Legislature only began allowing them at all in 2002 and has cautiously limited their growth, at least up to now.

They’re funded the same way traditional public schools are, on a per-pupil basis – that is, for each student enrolled, the school receives a fixed amount. Those funds are a mix of state and local dollars, totaling $8,100 per pupil in Nashville, $7,500 in Memphis, and $7,100 in Chattanooga, according to the association.

Charter schools are still public schools, staffed by certified teachers and required to make adequate yearly progress – in other words, they have to meet federal testing benchmarks or be shut down by the state.

But charter schools don’t have to adhere to the same curriculum or classroom approach as a traditional public school, meaning they can be more flexible and autonomous. That commonly translates to longer school days, Saturday classes or a longer school year. Custom lesson plans and more parental involvement factor in as well.

Getting permission to start a charter in Tennessee is a rigorous process – among the nation’s toughest, Throckmorton said. Applications to local school districts typically span hundreds of pages, while the majority of applicants are denied.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Throckmorton says.

“When it was put into place, it was actually put in by those who were very skeptical of charter schools. It’s become one of the best things – it keeps all of our schools really focused on academic performance,” he said.

While the political winds are currently blowing in charter schools’ direction, he said he doesn’t see them dominating the state’s education system.

“I don’t see a charter school on every street corner,” he said. “There is a niche. And in some districts that are really stubborn, you’re going to need more charter schools before they begin to really change and allow flexibility within their own schools and professionals.”

Haslam has made one of his top priorities giving the charter school community a shot in the arm.

The governor, who offered up an agenda to the Legislature last month, included a handful of charter school reforms, which would lift the 90-school cap on the number of charters granted in the state, allow open enrollment and involve a planned state school district in approving new schools.

Those proposals are encapsulated in HB1989, a bill carried by House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick that is awaiting a committee hearing.

“(It’s) all about giving more flexibility,” Haslam told a conference room full of Nashville Chamber of Commerce members Tuesday morning. “We think every child should have the ability to go to a great school regardless of economic background, so we have focused hard on doing that.”

Haslam’s new right-hand man in the Department of Education, Commissioner Kevin Huffman, will help push that agenda.

Huffman grew through the ranks of the education profession nontraditionally, first by earning his teaching degree through the Teach for America alternative teaching program, then by touting the group’s message as its vice-president for public affairs. He at one point was married to Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., and a celebrity of sorts in the education reform community who appeared in the movie Waiting for ‘Superman’.

The administration’s bill would open up charter eligibility to all students, instead of exclusively those deemed “at-risk” — those students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. However, needy students would still receive top priority for enrollment.

The measure would also allow charter applications to sidestep applying with local school districts by allowing them to hook up with the state’s achievement school district, which is chiefly responsible for turning around failing state schools.

The achievement school district is still in its infancy — because it was born out of legislation approved last year that led to the state’s Race to the Top win, the virtual school district that has the authority to take over operations of under-performing schools won’t launch until the 2011 school year.

“We have to seize on this moment if we’re going to be who we want to be as a state,” Haslam said.

Some House and Senate Republicans are trying to do just that. They’re initiating a slew of education reforms. The most controversial would halt a teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain labor contracts with local districts. Other would eliminate the union’s power to recommend appointees to key state retirement boards, ban educators from setting up automatic payroll deductions to pay union dues, and restrict the union from contributing to political candidates.

The Tennessee Education Association, a teachers union representing more than 50,000 educators, is no fan of charter schools, chiefly because they threaten to steer state and local dollars away from traditional public schools. This is a big worry in Nashville and Memphis, which house the most charter schools, according to the group’s chief lobbyist.

Jerry Winters, who has been fighting the heavier-hitting education reforms, said the TEA probably won’t spent much energy trying to fight charter school expansions.

“I don’t see us spending as much time on charter schools this year as we have in the past,” he said. “I think it’s to everybody’s advantage to make sure that these charter schools, once they get into expansion mode, are high-quality schools. I think even the people in the charter school movement, they get a black eye if you have schools that go out of business.”

Even if they don’t put up much of a fight against charter schools, Nashville Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart might.

“People who are interested in education should very carefully scrutinize the charter school bill because it goes to the very core of how our state education system is funded and who controls it,” said Stewart, who dislikes the idea of charter schools opening up under the umbrella of the state’s achievement school district instead of through local boards of education.

“Right now, we have local authorities that control most of what happens in our local schools,” Stewart said, “and the charter bill dramatically changes the structure of control in Tennessee, and we all have to look at that very carefully.”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this story.

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Business and Economy Liberty and Justice News

GOP’s Illegal Immigration Bills Filed Separately

State lawmakers announced Wednesday they’ll push several different proposals aimed at curbing illegal immigration. That’s instead of packaging the measures together as a single unified or “omnibus” bill – a move many had suggested, including Governor Bill Haslam.

Sponsors say the piecemeal approach will let legislators take their time and study each of three proposals in depth.

Senator Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, is carrying an Arizona-style measure that would have local and state police check the legal status of suspected undocumented immigrants during stops for traffic violations, and hand over those deemed unlawful to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Another proposal, by Senator Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, would require all employers to check the immigration status of new hires through the federal E-Verify system.

And Senator Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, has a bill to let state agencies check for lawful status and thereby keep illegal immigrants from receiving state benefits.

The three bills all share the same House sponsor: Representative Joe Carr, R-Lascassas.

“What we believe we have is model legislation for the other states in the country; we feel that strongly about it,” Carr said.

Not everyone was so upbeat Wednesday; Hedy Weinberg, who runs Tennessee’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Ketron’s Arizona-style measure could get Tennessee sued. She says it invites racial profiling because police will consider suspects’ skin color and accent when judging who may be here illegally.

“It becomes a ‘papers, please’ law because it requires everyone to carry a federal or state-issued ID in order to prove that they are here legally,” Weinberg said. “There’s a presumption that you are here illegally if you don’t have those documents on you.”

For his part, Ketron argued profiling is “not acceptable” and is prohibited under the Arizona law, which is currently facing a federal challenge. The sponsors wouldn’t say exactly how Ketron’s bill differs from Arizona’s.

Ketron had been looking to push another proposal to require drivers’ license tests be in English only, with a few exemptions, but the fate of that bill is now uncertain.

Johnson’s measure to keep illegal immigrants off state benefits does contain a key exception, he noted, in letting children attend public school here no matter their immigration status. “That is dictated by federal law,” Johnson said. “You shall not deny a free public education to a child, regardless of their legality in the country.”

As to the bill requiring employers make sure of new hires’ legality, Tracy says he’s confident it won’t burden small business in Tennessee; the E-Verify system doesn’t cost them anything and is relatively quick, he said. A business would face fines for violating Tracy’s rule the first two times, and lose its license the third.

When asked, Tracy said there’s no specific gauge by which he’d judge his legislation’s efficacy at curbing illegal employment, saying “I just think it’s going to work.”

Carr, however, cited decreases in crime in states like Missourri and South Carolina as evidence of “demagnetization” — that is, a state becoming less welcoming to undocumented immigrants.

Tennessee must act in kind, said Carr.

Sen. Johnson said the push to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants is motivated at least in part by the belief that they may be snatching up scarce jobs from legal residents who are capable and willing to work.

“Tennessee has an unemployment rate that is bordering on 10 percent,” said Johnson. “We have people that need the jobs that are out there. And if these jobs are being taken by folks that are in the country illegally, we wish them no ill will, but we would rather those jobs be had by lawful Tennesseans.”

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School of Bloc

The Tennessee Tea Party says it’s looking to shift its agenda in the state Legislature this year from reactive to proactive.

The group is offering classes for citizen activists on how best to contact lawmakers, track legislation and deal with the media, with its first session for about 100 activists held over the weekend at a hotel in Nashville.

“It’s all about arming the people with the proper tools to be activists,” said TTP Director Robert Kilmarx.

Tea partiers enjoyed some apparent success at the ballot box with last fall’s Republican gains in the statehouse. But now Kilmarx says they’re looking to expand their clout by actually influencing legislation and policy discourse.

“Obviously, we’re totally changing the dynamic,” Kilmarx said. “Whereas before we were protesting and sending e-mails, and everything was just kind of confrontational – responding to what was being thrown at us – now we’re building relationships with legislators, and we want to be working on crafting legislation and influencing legislation through lobbying efforts on the Hill.”

Speakers at the “Legislature 101” training advised participants on everything from the need to turn off the radio to avoid feedback when phoning a call-in show to the importance of refraining from impolitic gestures and angry outbursts — like threatening a lawmaker’s seat if he or she refuses to cast the desired vote. A general rule of thumb in the realm of legislative political advocacy, said event organizers, is if you can’t make a friend, at least don’t make an enemy.

Former state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, gave an overview of the legislative process: how the committee system works, roles within party caucuses and how to track bills on the Legislature’s website. She says acquainting tea partiers with the Legislature will be key to expanding the movement’s political influence.

“Their legislature and the way it functions is virtually a stranger to them,” she said. “They don’t know a lot about the way it functions.”

Attendee Pat Bugg said she got up at 5 a.m. to drive in from Crossville for the conference. Bugg is particularly concerned with cultivating a positive image for tea partiers, who she feels are misrepresented as “angry” and “mean.”

“I want to make sure that we don’t do anything at all that would make people perceive that about us,” Bugg said. “We want to know how to do things legally. We want to know how to do things the right way.”

With no leading body to enforce a top-down agenda, occasional rifts within the tea party movement over philosophy, strategy, priorities or tactics are seen as inevitable.

“It happens, it’s happened, it’s going to happen more,” said Kilmarx. “I think a strength of the tea party movement is it doesn’t have a single leader. There’s not a single face that is a spokesman, so it’s a marketplace of ideas.”

Kilmarx says the groups typically share similar core goals. Several people attending Saturday’s “Legislature 101” class, aimed at giving participants the tools to influence legislation, mentioned Christian and family values. But Kilmarx says he sees some tension between such views and tea partiers who are gay, for example.

But Bugg said the potentially divisive cultural or social issues don’t seem nearly as important to most tea party activists as fiscal restraint and limiting government to essential functions.

“It has nothing to do with gay, and it has nothing to do with abortion,” Bugg said. “It has to do with the Constitution and (making politicians) stop spending money. And I think all that other stuff just messes it up.”

Stepping up the tea party’s post-election civic involvement and political influence hinges on expanding communication and public outreach, Bugg said, especially via the Internet.

But she also doesn’t want the tea party to become too organized. A loose structure is what makes the movement work, she said.

“I don’t want someone telling me I have to be somewhere on a certain day,” she said. “What has happened in the past is somebody says, ‘I think this is a good idea. We’re going to show up here at this time. Come join us if you can.’ And people show up.”

A “Legislature 102” session as well as a version focused on local governments are in the works, said tea party organizers.