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How Much Do Anti-Immigration Bills Really Cost?

by Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Ariz.—Legislators across the nation are considering passing bills to fight illegal immigration, citing its costs to taxpayers. But two recent reports point to the high price of legal battles that could ensue.

“Jurisdictions would spend substantial amounts of money to pursue proposals that in most cases are going to lose in the courts,” said Angela Kelley, vice-president of immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress (CAP).

The two reports, put together by CAP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, document the financial, economic and social costs to cities of immigration bills that were found unconstitutional by the courts.

Before SB 1070, a law that made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Arizona (key portions of the ordinance were later partially blocked by a federal judge), at least five communities were dealing with the economic backslash of these measures in campaigns that began as early as 2006.

Detailed in the reports are examples of Hazelton, Pa., which has spent more than $2.8 million -- some estimate spending to be close to $5 million -- to defend an ordinance that required businesses to investigate the immigration status of its workers and tenants; and Farmers Branch, Tex., which spent $4 million to defend an ordinance that forced landlords to register the immigration status of its renters.

Gebe Martinez, senior writer and policy analyst for CAP, said that in some instances, like in Fremont, Neb., the city had to increase property taxes in order to pay for legal fees to defend an anti-illegal immigration ordinance. In two other cities, authorities scaled down their immigration enforcement, or totally repealed legislation due to its economic impact.

In Riverside, N.J., the economic downturn caused the city to rescind an ordinance and welcome back immigrants, said Martinez. The ordinance was one of the most restrictive towards illegal immigration in the country, attempting to ban immigrants from renting, residing in, or using property or being employed.

Prince William County, Va. also scaled down a statute that required police to arrest undocumented immigrants, realizing that the costs of enforcement and litigation were more than it could afford.

County Supervisor Frank Principi said during a teleconference that the exodus of undocumented immigrants was accompanied by a loss of tax revenue and a spike in home foreclosures.

Principi also noted that there is another negative impact to commerce that comes with the damage to “our communities’ brand and reputation.”

While Arizona’s immigration battles are far from over, it is possible to see how SB 1070 already has hurt the state’s pocketbook in a number of ways. The Center for American Progress found that the economic boycott of the state’s tourism and convention industry could result in a loss of $253 million in the state’s economic output and more than $86 million in lost wages over the next two to three years.

Several political observers argue that the cost for litigation of measures like SB 1070 could reach up to $10 million. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer created the Arizona Legal Defense Fund in part to offset some of these costs. The fund had $3.6 million as of September, when the attorney expenses reached close to $500,000.

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans are pushing for legislation in the state’s Senate that would give legislative leaders broad powers to hire private attorneys to defend SB 1070 and any future amendments to the bill.

“It’s like giving a blank check to the state legislature,” said Jaime Farrant, policy director for Border Action Network, who has testified against the bill during committee hearings, warning about the costly litigation the state has already engaged in.

Legislating through litigation has actually been a part of the strategy of several Republican leaders in Arizona. In 2004, Arizona voters approved Prop 200, a measure to deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants. In 2007, former Gov. Janet Napolitano signed one of the nation’s toughest employer sanctions laws for businesses that hire undocumented labor, and last year Gov. Brewer signed an ethnic studies ban. All of these measures are now being challenged in the courts.

Most recently, Republicans have planned to introduce a bill to repeal birthright citizenship in the United States -- knowing it is a federal issue -- by pushing a legal challenge all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has been behind a local push for state immigration laws since Arizona’s Proposition 200 and California’s 187 anti-illegal-immigrant measures, defend this approach.

“It is obvious that these communities wouldn’t be trying to implement this sort of ordinances if they weren’t facing substantial costs because of illegal immigration,” said Ira Mehlman, a national spokesperson for FAIR.

Mehlman said that the costs of litigations pale in comaprison to the cost of communities providing healthcare, education and welfare for undocumented immigrants and their citizen children.

Estimates that more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants have left the state for friendlier destinations or have gone back to their country of origin are a sign that these bills are working, according to Mehlman.

But it’s precisely this approach of attrition by enforcement that concerns the authors of one of the reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They hold FAIR and one of its former attorneys, Kris Kobach, accountable for driving down local economies and promoting racial tensions through these types of bills.

Kobach used to work for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of FAIR. He is the author of SB 1070 and several similar ordinances in other cities, and has defended them in court. He didn’t return calls for comments.

Part of the concern is that a number of these laws have been accompanied by a hateful rhetoric used by politicians and talk show hosts, manifesting itself with a spike in hate crimes and threats towards Latinos and people of color, explained Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

Potok cited the case of a 9-year-old who was killed in Arivaca, Ariz. The alleged killers are members of the Minutemen Project, a border watch organization that advocates for the sealing of the southern border with Mexico. He also documented instances in which local activists in Fremont, Neb., were threatened with “bloodshed,” and librarians in Farmers Branch, Tex., were told the library was too welcoming to Latinos.

“There’s been substantial damage done in each of these communities to the relationship with the Latino and immigrant community that will take years if it can ever be repaired,” said Kelley.

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