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Immigration Problem Rages, Solution Bogs Down In Washington

Key Points

Twenty-two states are considering legislation similar to Arizona’s new immigration law

The actual number of illegal aliens has slowed in the past two years

Arizona may be the frontline of the immigration policy debate, but states far from the Mexican border are also busy grappling with the issue.

Thousands of demonstrators march during a May Day immigration rally on May 1, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. More than 100,000 people were expected to march from four directions towards Los Angeles City Hall to protest Arizona's new immigration law.
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Twenty-two states are considering legislation similar to Arizona’s new immigration law, which, among other things, requires law enforcement officers to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws and that immigrants carry legal papers.

In Missouri, for instance, a state law prohibits the issuance of a drivers license to an illegal alien and employers from knowingly hiring or continuing to hire one. The law also penalizes municipalities that become sanctuaries by making them ineligible for state grants.

Utah is considering a guest worker program that some say could become a national model.

In Colorado, former GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo, whose 2008 presidential bid was built around his fervent attention to the problems of illegal immigration, has entered the governor’s race as a third-party candidate.

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In California, Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has a lengthy list of prohibitionsand is recommending the creation of an “economic fence," as well as the completion of the physical one underway along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Her Democratic rival, former governor and current attorney general, Jerry Brown, doesn't single out the issue on his campaign website.

Frontline States

California remains the leading state of residence for illegal aliens; in 2009 it had 2.6 million (6.8 percent of the total population). Texas was a distant second (1.7 million), followed by Florida (720,000), New York (550,000) and Illinois (540,000), according to Department of Homeland Security data. There are an estimated 11-million in all.

Though the immigration debate is louder than ever, the actual number of illegal aliens has slowed in the past two years, according to the Pew Research Center, with some attributing the trend to the recession.

From 2007-2009, it averaged 300,000 per year, from 550,000 in the the 2005-2007 period. During the first half of the decade, it averaged 850,000 a year.

Nevertheless, for states like, California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, immigration is an inescapable issue.

A 20-foot high fence separates 646 miles of the 2000-mile border between those US states and Mexico. Half of it is in Arizona. The federal government has spent $2.5 billion building it thus far and is expected to spend another $6.5 billion maintaining it over the next 20 years, according to a US Border Patrol audit.

Some 613,000 foreign nationals; 86 percent of whom were natives of Mexico, were caught trying to enter the country last year, according to the Dept. of Homeland Security, while the number of people apprehended by its Border Patrol unit fell 23 percent from the previous year, continuing a decade-long trend.

Counting The Costs

Prevention and detention, however, are just a fraction of the costs.

A new study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, concludes illegal immigration now costs federal and local taxpayers $113 billion a year.

States and local authorities provide $84.2 billion of it. Arizona’s annual cost, for example, is $2.5 billion, which given its population may be disproportionately high. It happens to be the state with the busiest gateway for illegal immigrants. Tucson, for instance, accounted for 241,667 or 45 percent, of all Mexican border apprehensions last year.  

Education for the children of illegal aliens, for instance, totals some $52 billion, according to the study.

That can clearly stretch resources and take its toll.

Between 1970 and 2008, immigrants (legal and illegal) went from 9 percent of California's population to 27 percent, according to a Center for Immigration Studies report.

During that period, the state went from having the 7th-most educated work force (based on the percentage of workers having completed high school) to the 50th.

Limited Federal Action

For all the hue and cry, never mind legislative maneuvering, at the state level, there’s been little, if any action, at the federal level since 2007, when the Bush administration failed to push through its immigration reform plan, which included an amnesty program.

Many expected legislation in 2010, but it now has probably slipped to 2011.