TWO VIEWS: Illegal workers enrich employers, but shortchange taxpayersBy Philip J. Romero03/23/08 00:00:00EUGENE, Ore. -- As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. On immigration policy, for most of the past 20 years -- since the last immigration "reform" act was passed in Congress in 1986 -- a vacuum is about all that has emanated from Washington.

So states are attempting what the feds won't do. The illegal immigrant problem that was first placed on the national radar by California in the early 1990s has expanded beyond a handful of border states to almost every state in the union, with only vacuous statements from our national "leaders."

Amid the debate over how to control our borders, a simple truth is rarely voiced: Many industries have built their business models on cheap labor and have no desire to end illegal immigration.

They dress up their business imperative in politically correct language to give the politicians they support a publicly acceptable reason for opposing real reform such as tamper-proof national ID cards.

Politicians, Republican and Democrat, outbid each other in proposing supposedly "tough" immigration laws -- then conveniently fail to provide agencies the resources to enforce them. Recent highly publicized initiatives by the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on employers may change this, but there have been Potemkin village "sweeps" before.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the issue has increasingly been taken up at the state and local levels. It's now a la carte immigration policy. Some big-city councils have passed ordinances declaring sanctuaries.

More commonly, jurisdictions have grown tired of waiting for the federal government, and are mandating sanctions that the Feds can't seem to make happen. Arizona's recent law is one example: it imposes state penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Why have Arizona voters, and by extension others, taken the law into their own hands, quite possibly unconstitutionally?

First, they see it as an economic imperative. The majority of illegal immigrants come from poor rural regions of Mexico and Central America. Their average level of education is barely six years of school.

Combined with a lack of English proficiency, this consigns them to only low-skilled, low-paid jobs. Most of government subsidies are targeted to low income residents, and are mandated by federal courts, regardless of the recipient's legal status.

Illegal immigrants absorb far more in government support than what they provide in tax dollars -- by a margin of at least eight to one. Taxpayers in states such as Arizona, seeing their dollars siphoned off to go to recipients they never intended, have every right to be outraged.

Second, while illegal immigrants are motivated by a desire to work, not dependence, they also are flouting the law, and ultimately our very sovereignty. Evading one legal obligation often leads to broader and more serious criminality -- and in fact, illegal immigrants disproportionately populate state prisons.

Ironically, the Arizona measure that has received the most attention is Proposition 300, prohibiting in-state university tuition discounts for illegal immigrant students. Proposition 300 went into effect on Jan. 1.

It is probably not in Arizonans' long-term interests to make it difficult for illegal immigrants to enter the middle class through college. But every such concession only maintains the look-the-other-way policy that has been endemic for generations.

In the absence of sincere federal action to match its brave promises, Arizona's frustration is entirely understandable. Expect more of the same from other states, absent effective, long-overdue reform from Washington.
Philip J. Romero is professor of business administration at the University of Oregon and author of “Racing Backward: the Fiscal Impact of Illegal Immigrants.â€