Last week, one Republican state representative promised to propose an Arizona-style immigration bill when the General Assembly goes back into session. Here are the practical and political problems with that approach.
Two weeks ago, the AP reported that lawmakers or candidates in 18 states say they plan to push for legislation modeled after Arizona's SB 1070 when they go back into legislative sessions next year. Thanks to two Republicans here, Illinois has joined those ranks.
Speaking at a Decatur press conference Thursday night, State Rep. Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth) and Adam Brown, a Decatur city councilman and GOP candidate for the 101st Illinois House District, promised to push an enforcement-only immigration bill this winter. While no legislation has technically been filed yet, the Decatur Herald-Review summarized the key provisions at this point:
Mitchell said the bill will include these components: illegal immigrants who are identified by authorities will be reported to federal law enforcement for detention; the state will not pay welfare benefits to illegal immigrants; and sanctuary cities will not receive state funds.
For the moment, let's put aside the constitutionality of these state-based immigration laws (which the U.S. Department of Justice is now challenging) and instead focus on the practical problems with this approach. Requiring that police officers question anyone they "reasonably suspect" of being undocumented -- regardless of behavior -- would burden local law enforcement agencies, which would have to divert valuable (and scare) resources to investigate away from serious crimes while further eroding trust in communities with substantial immigrant populations.
The economic and social justifications for the legislation are also dubious, to say the least. Mitchell and Brown tout a new report published last week by the Federation for American Immigration Reform that estimates Illinois spends roughly $4.6 billion in annual state and local government revenue to fund annual social welfare "outlays" on the undocumented. At first glance, cutting that chunk of spending on education, health care, and other social services would ease the state's budget crisis considerably.
Those figures, however, don't quantify the benefits of immigration, regardless of legal status. The largest single cost to taxpayers in FAIR's report, for example, is education for the children of undocumented immigrants. Yet most of those students are native-born, which means they are U.S. citizens who will grow up to be tax-paying adults, undoubtedly beneficial to the local economy. FAIR also ignores the purchasing power of Illinois' 340,610 undocumented workers. Using figures from 2008 to estimate the economic effects over time of what they call a "dynamic adjustment" in immigration policy, the Perryman Group concluded (PDF) that removing undocumented workers from Illinois' economy would result in an $11 billion loss in gross product and the permanent elimination of 119,214 jobs.
Even if a chunk of Illinois' undocumented population is deported because of heightened enforcement policies, ripping the safety net away from immigrants who still live in Illinois is not sound public policy, either.
Take the issue of health care. Mitchell heavily criticizes the All Kids program, which he suggests lavishes resources on undocumented children. But ignoring the needs of those residents poses a grave risk to public health, especially if sick kids infect their parents, many of whom work in service jobs where contact with food and goods is common. The cost of providing free emergency and charitable care to the uninsured is expensive too: roughly $1,000 more per year than individuals with insurance, most of which is financed by Illinois taxpayers.
Eliminating state aid for "sanctuary cities" is even more asinine. Chicago has qualified as a sanctuary city since 2006. Are they seriously threatening to shut down every state-financed program in Illinois' largest city? Do they understand the economic and social devastation that would cause?
Given the problems with implementation, and the fact that Democrats in Springfield have stymied a series of anti-immigration bills over the past two sessions, it's best to analyze the enforcement push through the lens of politics. Republicans like Mitchell and Brown are hoping that drumming up resentment against social welfare programs for immigrants in a state with an immense operating deficit will prove beneficial at the ballot box. In the short-term, the calculation may prove accurate; just last week, a majority of Illinois voters polled in a survey from Rasmussen said they would favor passage of the "new Arizona immigration law" if it was considered here. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Brown's Democratic opponents, much like Democratic governors across the country, distanced themselves from the Arizona law when asked about it by the Herald-Review, but did so cautiously.
On the other hand, there are few better ways to activate a depressed Democratic base (and particularly the rising number of Latino and Asian-American voters) than through anti-immigrant proposals. That could prove problematic for GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady, who himself thinks the Obama administration should drop its lawsuit challenging SB 1070 in Arizona. And in the long-run, businesses and responsible Republicans agree that comprehensive immigration policy is critical to the health of Illinois' economy and the political fortunes of the GOP.
If Mitchell and Brown don't believe us, maybe they will listen to former Gov. Jim Edgar. Just this spring, he told reporters that it would be "disastrous political issue for the Republican Party if we are viewed as anti-immigration." This bill would cement that image into the minds of voters everywhere.