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Document This

Before lawmakers mete out punishment to illegal immigrants they need to look at the whole Utah economy.

By Katharine Biele
Posted // August 22,2007 - Steve Urquhart wanted to make a statement, and he did, in that meaningless and mind-numbing way that is so our Legislature.

The subject was illegal immigration. Well, not quite. The subject was educating illegal immigrants. Actually, the children of illegal immigrants. Or was it about money? Or punishment?

Urquhart, R-St. George, proposed sending a letter to the feds asking them to reimburse the state for the cost of educating illegal immigrant children. He figured that those federal government types would send it to the round file, but at least they’d get a good wave of the finger from Utah first.

All but three legislators at an education interim committee hearing last week voted to send the letter—to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (which has been called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services since 2003), the U.S. Department of Education and Utah’s congressional delegation.

The committee heard the results of a legislative audit titled “A Review of the Public Education Costs of Undocumented Children.” It was just one piece of the day’s focus on illegal immigrants, the federal government’s abdication of its responsibility and the many dollars Utah is losing to this Hispanicization phenomenon.

Next door, the Business and Labor Committee was wringing its hands over other lost revenues—workers compensation, Social Security and the unemployment fund. Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley, talked about the underground economy—a place where illegal workers can get false documents, avoid paying into Social Security, workers compensation and unemployment.

For instance, the feds have started a pilot employment verification program to root out those problems. It apparently works fine if you’re only matching a Social Security number to the person. But it doesn’t tell you if it’s a counterfeit number or even if more than one person is using that number.

And verifying someone’s status is fraught with problems. Utah Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi warned of discrimination complaints. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has hinted that keeping a database of immigrants could have a chilling effect on labor complaints.

 “When you talk about rounding up 12 million illegal immigrants—if it actually were to happen—I hope you’ve got garden plots because your food industry will shut down; it’s that desperate,” said Jim Olsen of the Utah Retail Merchants Association.

With Utah’s 2.6 percent unemployment rate, finding willing workers—not illegal workers—is paramount.

 “If we gather all the illegals up and send them back, how would that impact us?” asked Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo. “Our country’s never gone hungry, and we don’t know what it’s like. Maybe if we do something like that, we’ll find out.”
The discussion was all about what-ifs.

“We’re looking at undocumented students here. We’re not looking at parents who are undocumented and whose kids are citizens,” said Rep. Kenneth W. Sumsion, R-American Fork. “If the law were enforced, those parents wouldn’t be here, and they probably wouldn’t have citizen children.”

Citizen children. “I was shocked when the dialogue shifted to how citizen children of undocumented parents might be impacting the school system,” said Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a member of the Utah Hispanic Latino Legislative Task Force. “The fact that some legislators were talking about quantifying the impact of a constitutionally held right in that context and that nobody from the public had an opportunity to refute those comments was really disconcerting.”
It was enough to make you wonder at the Legislature’s intent. Punish the government, punish yourself, punish parents.

The audit estimated that between $54.9 million and $85.4 million of state and local monies were spent to educate undocumented kids last year. But the audit was limited, curiously, to expenditures and even noted that a citizens group had recently asked the governor’s office to conduct a more comprehensive study. In other words, maybe lawmakers should be looking at the whole economy of Utah and include the benefits and other impacts of undocumented people.

The governor’s office sent the group back to the legislative auditor, who directed them to legislative leadership.

We know what legislative leadership thinks. Just ask Urquhart, who predicts on SteveU.com/blog that the states will “move forward on legislation to deal with impacts caused by illegal immigration.”

You have to hope they move based on some meaningful information.
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