Mexico's Felipe Calderón expected to discuss Arizona immigration law before Congress

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 10:28 AM

As Mexico's president prepares to address Congress, the tough new immigration law in Arizona is sure to be a centerpiece of his speech. Already, Felipe Calderón has called the law "discriminatory" against "our people" and said he wants to work with President Obama to find a way to promote "dignified, legal and orderly living conditions to all migrant workers."

Calderón is expected to continue to force the issue Thursday, emphasizing the ways the United States has benefited from Mexican workers -- both those with documents and those without.

But a discussion of the benefits of immigration fairly brings with it a debate about its economic costs.

How do you assess the costs?

In a report this week, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates reduced immigration rates and helped write the law in Arizona, parses the numbers.

Here's the ledger: $1.6 billion for education; another $1.1 billion is spent on welfare costs, Medicaid and incarceration. That is offset by $143 million in tax revenue.

Total cost: $2.7 billion.

In its numbers, FAIR includes the cost of educating the American-born children of illegal immigrants because "if the parents leave the country, the children are likely to go, too," said Jack Martin, who has conducted similar studies for FAIR since 2004.

"If underemployed American workers were taking jobs held by illegal aliens, it would likely lead to a decrease in the cost of social services provided to those American workers," Martin said. "You can make a good case that you could actually have an economic benefit and not a cost" when Americans are hired in jobs held by illegal immigrants.

On the other side of the argument, immigrant rights advocate Frank Sharry, president of America's Voice, argues that Martin's numbers leave important factors off the ledger, namely the consumer purchasing power of immigrant workers.

"The costs and benefits of immigration including undocumented immigrants is pretty much a wash, but there is no question that comprehensive immigration reform would mean huge benefits," Sharry said. "We agree the status quo is broken, but we challenge them on what immigration reform would mean in terms of economic growth."

He cites a report out early this year by the left-leaning Center for American Progress and the American Immigration Council. It concluded that if illegal immigrants were granted legal status, their wages would go up, as would their earning power, meaning increased tax revenues of $4.5 billion to $5.4 billion in the first three years.

"There are a whole lot of Arizonans who want Mexican labor without giving them rights," Sharry said.

In Arizona, Sharry added, the money lost in legal battles over its tough new immigration law and the financial consequences of the economic boycott the state faces should be factored into the cost equation.

Both Sharry and Martin believe their argument is central to the coming fight on Capitol Hill over immigration policy. The bottom line there is always: What's it going to cost?

The truth is, "there are so many hard to measure things involved that it is really difficult to put your finger on the nail and be precise about it," said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. "There are many issues from finding the indicators, to measuring them, to looking at costs and benefits over time. . . . We don't do it."

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