ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION: A NATIONAL ISSUE THAT COSTS STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS”

No matter how one feels about the complex issue of illegal immigration, it would have been hard not to sympathize a bit with Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello last week.At least the Mayor Cresitello who appeared on New Jersey Network’s “On the Record” show that was taped last Friday.He estimates that histown is home to some 1,500 illegal immigrants and previously noted how his many ofMorristown’s legal residentscomplain about the decline in the quality of life in their community and the strain on local services posed by the newcomers.

To the Mayor, desperate times require desperate measures. He wants to deputize members of his police department to implementfederal immigration lawthrough the 287 G program in the Department of Homeland Security. Cresitello is cautiously optimistic that his request with be approved by federal authorities. When asked by “On the Record” host Michael Aron about the rationalebehindwanting local police do the work of federal authorities, the Morristown mayor calmly explained how local officialsknow where theillegal immigrants live, and theydeal with the contractors who hire undocumented day laborers .

Cresitello alsoassured the viewing audience that the Morristownpolice officersknow not to harass or profile members ofany ethnic group.He added that documenting immigrant workers would likely increase the collection of payroll and income taxes and force employers to paythem at leastminimum wage. Under these circumstances the playing field would be leveled for citizens seeking work and unwilling to be paid low wages under the table.This all make sense. Buton Saturdaythe Mayor suffered a lapse in judgement. At a much publicized anti-illegal immigration rally in Morristown, Cresitello directed an impolitic statement at a group of counter-protesters. He said, “To the communists across the street, and the Marxists, we know your motives, and we will not continue to let you go forward with your intent to take over the country.”

The counter-protesters were being rowdy andtried to drown out anyone speaking at the rally. And, they did egg the Mayor on with a highly inflammatory, ridiculous sign thatidentified him as”Mayor KKK.” Some may think thata politicianis an extremist if he believes thatfailing to enforceimmigration lawleaves the United Statesopento an influx of millions ofworkerswho will drive down wages and drive up taxes with their demands for social services. But such a view issurely more tame thanthe call made by some self-stated leaders in the Latino community for the “re-conquest” of California and American Southwest by ethnic Mexicans and central Americans for their “race.”

Exchanges like the ones between Cresitello and his critics are not especially productive. Rather, they keep people from having candid conversations about the consequences ofillegal immigration and the humanitarian, economic, political and practical matters that need to be considered along with the legal and ideological ones. After a spirited but unsatisfying debate on these topics earlier this year, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. failed topass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Some lawmakers in both parties recognized that they had not convinced constituents that Uncle Sam could or would stem the flow of illegal immigration into this country. Other lawmakers seemed worried about the political consequences of offending current and futureLatino-American voters if strictmeasures todeal with illegal immigration were adopted.

Then there are those clerics fromvarious religious denominations, including my own, whohave been sermonizing about the needfor America to offer amnesty to illegal immigrants and ina fewinstanceshave provided sanctuary for folks about to be apprehended. Yes, the Good Book teaches mercy and charity, but it alsorecommends obedience tojust laws. What is so unjust about having a legal path to citizenship? Someobservers have noted thatgiven the decline in membership in some religious denominations, perhaps a few clergy hereare using this issuetotry to gain favor with new immigrants, many of whomregard religion as a central part of their lives.

While there are people who want to argue aboutwhat illegal immigration means for thehealth ofthe Republic and our souls, mostfolks seem to think about the issue in more practical terms.A recent Monmouth University-Gannett Poll shows that 69 percent of New Jerseyans surveyed do believe that illegal immigration is a serious problems for the country. However, 65 percent think that illegal immigrants who have worked in the United States for at least the last two years should be permitted to apply for legal status. 30 percent of New Jerseyanswant illegal immigrantstobe deported.

These are interestingnumbersin a state that has between 400,000 and 800,000 illegal immigrants among its 8.6 million inhabitants. One is tempted to conclude thatNew Jersey’sdiversity and large legal immigrant population makesmost residentssympathize with immigrants, legal or not. However, that Monmouth-Gannett poll showed that only 40 percent of residents believe that the impact ofimmigrationhas been positive for the state, while 44 percent think it has been bad.Can these contradictory views be reconciled? Well,they seem to suggest thatmost New Jerseyansbelieve it is impractical and too expensive to send illegal immigrantsback to their native lands evenif they are law-breakers. Many Republicans and Democratic lawmakers in the national government make this same point.

But ifit is too expensive to sendthe illegal immigrants back home, can New Jerseyafford to allow hundreds of thousands ofthem to remain here?The issue of what the state can and cannot afford to do is not one that has been raised simply by nativists, ideologies, ora beleaguered, hot-under-the-collar mayor. Rather, state lawmakers in both parties have been crying poverty for years now.Since he took office in January 2006, Governor Corzine has told New Jerseyans that we have a budget crisis, a school funding crisis, an affordable housing crisis, a health care crisis, a property tax crisis, a state debt crisis, apublic worker pension fund and health benefits crisis,and an open space preservation crisis, all of which willrequire the state to come up with more revenue or cut existing programs to free up funds.

Willthe state’srevenue problems be alleviated or exacerbatedhaving more low-income workers – and their families – reside hereeven if they do start paying taxes.Well,even those folks who argue that increases in populationultimately lead to economic growth would have to admit that for the foreseeable future, the costs to governmentwill be high. Thereis health care for the uninsured, a $12,000a year tab for each new school age child,and pressures to provide even more affordable housing units.And let’s not forget the need to helpthe structurally unemployed in New Jersey – those people who can’t work, can’tfind work, or don’t want to work in the jobs that some illegal immigrants currently hold.

In the meantime, two legislators- Democraticstate Senator Ellen Karcher and Republican Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck -recently saidthat state and local officials should not try to try to enforce federal immigration law.Both believe thatthe national governmentneeds to enact comprehensive legislation on the issue and that state and local governments should notassume the costs and potential legal problems of doing the job of INS or Homeland Security. But, New Jersey and other states and, yes, communities like Morristown, are already stuck with thecost of providing services for the illegal immigrants who are already here.Maybe a way to get the federal government to act on comprehensive immigration reform is for all fifty states to send Uncle Sam the bill.At the least, perhaps the negative publicity would cause Congress and the Bush Administration to secure the borders so that the problem doesn’t get any worse.

David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports onNew Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.
ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION: A NATIONAL ISSUE THAT COSTS STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS”