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Opinion: Speakers, audience argue at forum on economic impacts of illegal immigration



Tensions quickly arose during a discussion on the economic effects of illegal immigration at a town hall forum in Reno yesterday.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, said that immigration – both legal and illegal – creates a “fiscal drain” on public services that is significantly larger than the “miniscule” effect that they have on the per capita income of the nation.

Camarota said that 64 percent of illegal immigrant households use government welfare services, which is more than three times that of U.S.-born Nevadans and significantly higher than the 39 percent of legal immigrants in Nevada using welfare. The comments prompted loud protests from some members of the crowd, complaining that such households don’t have access to those services.

In response, Camarota explained that children born in the United States to illegal immigrant families are U.S. citizens, so the families can be eligible for such services as food stamps and free school lunches. Welfare programs not related to providing for the immigrants’ children, he said, are not usually used by illegal immigrants.

The need for these government services, Camarota said, stems from the fact that a person’s education level has bearing on his or her financial success. Thirty-seven percent of all immigrants in Nevada have less than a high school level of education, he said, compared to 11 percent of Nevadans born in the U.S.

Camarota emphasized that these results are not a “moral defect” of the immigrant population, but rather a way the current social climate causes immigration to have a negative effect on the economy. Modern immigrants, he said, face much different conditions than immigrants from a century ago.

“[Earlier immigrants] came in at a time when education levels weren’t so important to economic success, and […] they came in at a time when we didn’t have welfare,” Camarota said.

“In 1910, the total spending by federal, state, and local government was 5 percent of the GDP. Today, I’ll tell you right now, it is 40 percent. Before the recession, it was like 33 percent,” he said.

Camarota also said the increase in the number of unskilled laborers caused by illegal immigration naturally drives down unskilled workers’ wages, an effect that exacerbates the need to rely on government services.

Bob Fulkerson, state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, argued that immigrants play a vital role in the Nevada economy and said Hispanic immigrants paid $4.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2005.

“That’s a significant contribution,” Fulkerson said. “In fact, that equals about half the state budget in one year.”

Fulkerson said that he did not differentiate between legal or illegal immigrants, characterizing such a differentiation as meaningless.

“A worker in Nevada is a worker,” he said. “When you go to pay sales tax on that car, when you go to pay the property tax on the apartment that you rent, when you pay other kinds of taxes here that everybody has to pay, nobody says, “Well, are you here with papers or without papers?” No, you still pay those taxes.”

Fulkerson challenged Camarota’s claim that the influx of unskilled workers caused by illegal immigration causes drops in wages among lower-income workers, citing data that showed high school dropouts – the most likely competitor for jobs with illegal immigrants – often make more money in states with higher illegal immigrant populations.

The idea that immigrants take more money out of federal services than they put into it was also questioned by Fulkerson, who referred to a Wall Street Journal article saying immigrants will pay more into the most expensive government programs – Medicaid and welfare – than they will take out of it.

Fulkerson acknowledged that illegal immigrants use emergency room services and educational services, but stated that educating such immigrants will only benefit the nation and that giving health care to illegal immigrants is the morally right thing to do.

“I’d much rather my government be on the side of the street of the good Samaritan, who says ‘no matter where you come from, or what paper you have in your pocket, we’re going to help you out if you’re dying,’” he said.

Like Camarota, Fulkerson’s comments also earned protest and even some ridicule from attendees, with several interrupting his speech and one mockingly proclaiming, “If this picture gets any rosier, I’m going to go down and disband the border patrol.”

At the end of his speech, Fulkerson caused a stir by alleging that one of the founders of the Center for Immigration studies, John Tanton, had ties to white supremacist groups – a statement to which Camarota objected.

“The head of the center for immigration studies is Hispanic. His name’s Pete Nunez,” Camarota said. “This idea that the Center has some kind of association with bad groups is outrageous and ridiculous, and is nothing more than trying to stop the debate with race-baiting and name calling.”

After the speakers finished, the public question-and-answer session devolved into a heated argument among audience members with few questions being asked of the speakers themselves.

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