The controversy over illegal immigrants in the United States has been heating up during the last few months. Efforts in Congress to curb illegal immigration have stalled. But many state governments have taken the initiative to create their own solutions. Melinda Smith narrates this report.Illegal immigration and the need for cheap labor have created a difficult political fight that is being debated in the halls of Congress and in many state legislatures.
Lindsay Lowell is Director of Policy Studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. He says the U.S. would not have some industries if it did not have access to cheap labor.
"The data seems to indicate employers surely do benefit when they are able to pursue business opportunities they would not be able to pursue otherwise and consumers benefit to a small amount because they get certain kinds of goods cheaper than they would otherwise."
It has been against U.S. law to hire illegal immigrants since 1986. The law has been enforced with audits, raids and fines levied against businesses that hired illegal workers. Experts say the number of fines has fallen during the last six years.
John Keeley is the Director of Communications at the Center for Immigration Studies. He says, "Of the 12 million illegal aliens the federal government estimates that are here today, we believe seven million of them are in the workforce. We further believe about half of them, 3.5 million, are working “on the books” and the other half, obviously, are for cash payments on the ground, on an underground economy."
It is this underground economy that worries many states and local jurisdictions. The cost of educating the children of illegal workers and the cost of health care fall on local governments. So they increasingly are taking on the role of enforcement. During the last six months at least 30 states have considered more than 75 bills targeting illegal immigrants and those who hire them.
In Colorado, for example, the state legislature recently passed one of the toughest immigration reform bills in the nation. Governor Bill Owens has promised to sign it in the next few days. It would require a state identification card for every citizen who wants government services.
"We have one standard: if you are going to receive federal benefits, you are going to have to prove you are a citizen,” said the governor. “(There are) a million people in Colorado that will have to prove that."
A measure has been approved in Pennsylvania that would revoke the business licenses of companies that hire undocumented workers. The city council of Hazelton, Pennsylvania made English the city's official language despite protests from the Latino community. Hazelton also cracked down on landlords and businesses that assist illegal immigrants with housing or jobs.
Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta said, "Anyone who is in the city of Hazelton illegally, they need to be concerned. For those that are here legally, this is their home, and I am their mayor, and this is our community.
Experts say more than half of illegal immigrants in the U.S. pay income taxes. They also say that while some states are trying to integrate illegal immigrants into the community many others are tightening laws to discourage them from settling in their states. Either way, the debate over the nearly seven million illegal workers in the U.S. will continue for many months.