Earlier today, a Reuters reporter emailed me asking for my comments to the Mississippi anti-immigration bill (HB-488) that just passed the state lower house late last night, and is now on its way to the state senate. Here is the full text of my reply:
I haven’t had a chance to see the final text of the bill as it passed in the state lower house. But in general, the kind of bill that essentially transforms every state employee into an immigration official is extremely counter-productive. I’ll get to the moral issues last, but first let’s focus on the bad policy implications:
1) Such a law creates a massive layer of bureaucracy. If every time I want to renew my license, apply for transcripts from my public university or community college, or apply for a marriage license I have to first demonstrate my citizenship or residency, it will require an additional hurdle that will, in aggregate, slow down the productivity of state bureaucrats.
2) Because the law must be applied equally (in order to comply with federal equal protection statutes), local officials will have to request citizenship or residency papers from all citizens. To do so otherwise opens the state up to lawsuits based on discrimination.
3) Because of the above, most citizens will suddenly find themselves in violation of the law if they do not permanently carry their birth certificates around with them. As most non-citizen residents can tell you, a driver’s license, student or military ID, or Social Security card is not accepted as proof of citizenship or residency status. The only such documents are a passport (which most American citizens do not possess) or a birth certificate. Thus, native-born Mississippi residents will find themselves barred from most public services until they can produce a birth certificate (a document many citizens do not have in their immediate possession).
4) Both the bureaucratic red tape and subsequent inconvenient (as well as potential for harassment) will discourage not only foreign investment (as it has in Alabama, where many foreign investment projects have been suspended or cancelled) but will also discourage US citizens and legal residents from other states from moving to or doing business in the state. This will make it even more difficult for Mississippi businesses to recruit top candidates from other states, as well as in efforts to recruit from the global talent pool. The local or “native” Mississippi pool of engineers, doctors, nurses, and other professionals is not enough to meet demand, and certainly not enough to generate the necessary economic growth to help lift the state out of poverty.
5) The policy will particularly affect police forces, which are already stretched too thin. In Alabama, the requirement that police officers spend precious time checking on the citizenship or residency status of simple traffic stops has led to a dramatic increase in crime, as police officers are unavailable to respond to serious crimes in Alabama’s cities. Do Mississippi lawmakers want to help increase crime statistics in Mississippi? I hope not.
6) The policy may have the intended effect of “self-deporting” many local undocumented workers. But this will also have negative consequences for the state. Undocumented workers make up less than 0.3 percent of state residents, but contribute an estimated 11 percent of total state tax revenue. Why? Because most undocumented workers are deducted their income taxes from payroll deductions but, unlike citizens and legal residents, cannot file income tax returns. More than half of US citizens end up paying nothing in income taxes, because they are simply too poor (that figure is much higher in Mississippi). Thus, contrary to popular belief, undocumented workers actually subsidize state programs to a greater proportion than local residents. In addition, undocumented workers pay sales taxes and property taxes, just like all other residents. Also contrary to popular beliefs, with the exception of public schools, undocumented immigrants receive no state or federal welfare benefits, since these can only go to legal residents and citizens. Thus, the “self-deportation” of undocumented workers could cost the state as much as $52 million in tax revenue. Not to mention the adverse effect such a loss of migrant labor would have on a number of business, particularly those in the agricultural and constructor sector.
Finally, the law would set Mississippi back nearly a century in civil rights legislation. Because the law clearly targets Hispanics, the law gives local citizens a green light to harass anyone who looks “Mexican” or “foreign” (other ethnic minorities). That kind of atmosphere will not only drive away undocumented migrants, but also legal residents and even citizens who are perceived as “foreigners.” It will contribute to a decline in the state’s competitiveness to attract the best and brightest workers (and students, at premier institutions like the University of Mississippi, where I work) to the state.
In short, the law will be an economic disaster for the state.
So, why is this law—and others like it—being pursued now? Because it’s an election year. And the most conservative base in the GOP has decided to use immigration (the newest form of race-baiting) and contraception (the newest form of attacks on women’s rights) as a way to generate enthusiasm for the 2012 presidential election. They will probably not succeed, and their effort may likely give the Democratic party its widest margin of victory since Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964. But even if they succeed, passing such laws will leave a wake of economic devastation across the South that would make General Sherman proud.
I invite you to please sign this petition, which I hope to mail to the state’s legislators before it’s too late. Thank you!
Don’t forget to contact your Mississippi state representatives. HB-488 is an anti-immigration bill almost identical to the one recently passed in Alabama (which has had disastrous economic consequences for that state).
Here is the link to the status of HB-488 from the Mississippi state legislature’s website. And here is the text of HB-488. The bill has already been passed to the Judiciary B and Education subcommittees.
If you want to hear about how the bill has fared in Alabama, I recommend this now-classic This American Life episode: Reap What You Sow. In Alabama, farmers have lost crops, crime rates have gone up (as police forces spend time checking on individual residency/citizenship status), construction crews are short, and schools are losing funding (since their student population dropped and people have left, losing them property tax revenue). You don’t want this to happen in Mississippi, do you?
Contrary to what you may believe, “illegal” immigrants pay taxes. A lot of taxes. Don’t believe me? Here’s a chart that shows how much they pay in each state. In Mississippi alone, “illegal” immigrants pay more than $52 million in taxes. That accounts for more than 11% of the total state budget. Why? Because unlike most Americans, “illegal” immigrants can’t file for income tax refunds, so they pay the highest possible rates in payroll taxes (in contrast, about half of American qualify for full tax refunds—so they pay nothing in income taxes). Driving out “illegal” immigrants would not only cripple Mississippi’s agricultural and construction sector (as it has in Alabama), it would also mean a significant shortfall in tax revenue, which would require massive public spending cuts.