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December 21, 2014

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EDITORIAL:

Immigration woes point to bigger problems

Immigration officials have detained more than 45,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador since October, a startling number driven by terrible conditions in their home countries.

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

• 18,611 — Border Patrol agents assigned to Southern border in 2013

• 9,840 — Border Patrol agents assigned to Southern border in 2003

• 3,444 — Border Patrol agents assigned to Southern border in 1993

A BIG COST

• 34,000 — Federal “bed mandate,” or the number of jail beds required for illegal immigrants

• $119 — Cost per bed per day

• $2.8 billion — Budget for detention and removal of illegal immigrants

The news has set off a new round of debate about immigration which, once again, is marked by simplistic sound bites and inaccurate statements masquerading as facts. Beyond the emotional appeals on all sides, there are many erroneous platitudes that have driven the discussion. For example:

Secure the border, and everything will be fine. If only it were that simple. The United States has spent billions of dollars trying to improve border security, but that hasn’t kept people out. The focus has been on the border with Mexico. (Sorry, Canada.) Last year, there were 18,611 Border Patrol agents assigned to the Southern border, almost double the number from 2003. There also is a stretch of fencing of more than 650 miles along the Southern border. Doing more will cost billions of dollars, but the return on investment may be small. Why? Nearly half of all immigrants in question entered this country legally and overstayed their visas.

We should just deport them. People who want to crack down on immigration assume it’s as easy as rounding people up and shipping them to their home countries. But it’s not so simple. Why? For one reason, there’s due process to protect American citizens and legal immigrants. Authorities can’t just scoop people up and demand that they show proof of citizenship or legal residence. There’s also a huge cost, about $2.8 billion each year, to detain and remove illegal immigrants.

They’re criminals. Not necessarily. Entering the United States illegally is a criminal act under federal law, typically a misdemeanor. But just being here without authorization, such as overstaying a visa, is not a crime. Federal officials can pursue deportation in those cases, but it’s a civil, not criminal, matter.

They are taking American jobs. There is no doubt immigrants here without legal permission work at a variety of jobs. But it’s difficult to prove that millions of Americans have lost their jobs because of them. For example, for the past several years, farmers have reported a labor shortage because the Mexican economy has improved, yet many farmers say they haven’t seen U.S. workers jump at the chance to do farm work.

Illegal immigrants are draining the economy. That depends on whom you ask. Anti-illegal immigration advocates say so, but other studies show the cost of illegal immigration isn’t as big as it’s made out to be. Although immigrants who are in this country illegally don’t pay income tax, they do pay sales and gas taxes, among others. They also spend money, boosting the economy, and they often don’t request government services, such as police, for fear of being deported.

The bottom line

The arrival of thousands of Central American children at our nation’s borders is tragic, but it’s just a symptom of a larger problem: a broken system. Immigration laws don’t work, nor do policies that split families and send people — many of whom were born elsewhere but grew up here — back to countries they never knew.

Congress and the nation need to put away the stereotypes and false beliefs that dominate the debate and find a sensible solution that doesn’t include spending billions of dollars to lock people up simply for looking for a better life.

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