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Montana Viewpoint
STATES TAKE OVER FEDERAL IMMIGRATION LAW ENFORCEMENT DUTIES

March 3, 2008

“He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while - plenty of company - and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.”
From Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Watching state governments taking over the enforcement of U. S. Immigration law reminds me of the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence. Tom’s Aunt Polly had given him the task of whitewashing a board fence nine feet high and 300 feet long. Tom had absolutely no desire to work that hard or long, so as other boys came by, he conned them into painting the fence while he sat under a tree. He not only got them to paint the fence, he actually charged them for the privilege. Tom could do the job, he just didn’t want to, so he found a patsy. Sort of like the United States government and the enforcement of our immigration laws.

In the absence of meaningful effort on the part of the Federal government to take any effective action other than to put up a fence or try to establish National Identification Cards (shudder) many states have taken on the obligation—and cost—of monitoring something that has always been totally outside their jurisdiction; enforcement of federal immigration policy. It is a case of the federal government having the expertise and money but not the desire, and the states having the desire, but not the money or expertise.

So states are passing laws that I can promise you will be difficult to enforce and expensive to administer, such as making illegal aliens subject to felony charges for certain violations.  A felony conviction means a year or more in jail, and I am having a hard time understanding why we would want to pay the $25,000 it costs to house a felon for a year when the alternative is to deport them, which has to cost less.

A lot of the state laws target businesses that employ undocumented workers which means that the business community is expected to learn how to tell the difference between genuine and counterfeit federal identification cards. I think that honest businesses may have marginally better success at this than bartenders have at picking out phony IDs. Employers that hire illegal workers knowingly and purposely should be thrown in jail, but it should be a federal jail, and the people who do the throwing should be federal people, not state or local law enforcement.

There are obvious reasons why these people cross borders to find work—availability of jobs in America and lack of good wages in Central America and Mexico. Ironically, these workers are breaking the law to do exactly what we wish some Americans would do which is to get a job and support their families. Obviously there is a reason why they are hired—lack of an American workforce available or willing to do the work—and just as obviously there is a benefit to the American people in the form of cheap food because of the cheap immigrant labor.

While there are benefits to the American public, there are costs, too, and we are offended by people who take advantage of government service without paying for it. There is some evidence that a part of these costs are offset because those here illegally can’t avoid paying federal and state income taxes and sales taxes in states that have them. An October 1, 2007 article in State Tax Notes (yeah, I read some pretty boring stuff) looked at research by two states, Texas and Iowa. Texas figures they took in more in taxes than they paid in services, but in Iowa it’s the other way around.

If income taxes are not being paid, well, it takes two to tango, and employers are required to withhold federal and state taxes on all employees’ income. If the employer doesn’t withhold there are already laws that take care of that situation. If they do withhold, then that money is all to the good of the government because undocumented aliens are extremely unlikely to file for a refund.

These are all interesting facts, but the issue is, after all, that there are people in America illegally and that something should be done about it. Here’s a suggestion.

It is no secret that crime goes down when enforcement goes up. There’s a simple logic there that even a crook can understand; the odds of getting caught are higher. So while much anger and frustration is directed towards the undocumented worker for entering the country illegally, that anger needs to be directed toward the federal government for the lack of effective immigration laws and the lack of enforcement of those laws already in place.

There is no real reason for states to pass laws to implement national policy when there is one all encompassing solution: federal enforcement of federal law.

Jim Elliott

jim@jimelliott.org