The issue: Is the United States doing enough to discourage illegal immigration? If not, is there a way to enforce immigration laws without jeopardizing the labor force for agricultural areas such as SLO County?
Illegal immigration is a contentious issue that ultimately boils down to two topics: border security and legal immigration policy.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, almost 2,800 people were arrested per day last year for attempting to illegally enter the United States. There is no way to know how many people succeeded. Although this marks a sharp decline from the number of apprehensions in years past, the number and persistence of arrests proves that we may be discouraging illegal immigration, but we are certainly not doing enough to prevent it.
Current estimates place the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. in a range from 10 million to 12 million. This places a tremendous burden on infrastructure, government services and taxpayers. Many studies and organizations, including the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, conclude that taxes generated by illegal immigrants do not offset the cost of public services provided to them.
Despite paying unavoidable taxes such as sales tax, illegal immigrants generally do not pay income taxes. Meanwhile, government services often cost more per person for illegal immigrants than for American citizens. Education, for example, often costs more per student for illegal immigrants because of the need for remedial and ESL classes. Illegal immigrants also have an impact on our criminal justice system.
Californias prison population is more than 160,000, and 10 percent of the inmates are classified as illegal immigrants. The cost of housing an inmate is approximately $45,000 per year, which equates to about $720 million that California spends each year incarcerating these violent and serious offenders. It makes more sense to focus on preventing these criminals from ever entering our country.
Comprehensive and common sense immigration reform starts with securing our borders. We are chasing our tails when we catch illegal immigrants on the border and deport them without fully preventing their re-entry. They recognize that our border is porous and will try until they succeed in illegally crossing into the U.S. Nevertheless, there has been progress.
Since a peak number of 1.6 million arrests at our southern border in 2000, there has been an overall decline in apprehensions, including a decline every year after 2006. This is primarily because of the concerted and ongoing effort by the U.S. government to tighten our borders since Sept. 11.
The surge of efforts over the past 11 years, using a combination of manpower, barriers, technology, intelligence gathering and stricter consequences to secure our borders, has brought significant improvements. However, we must remain vigilant.
Terrorists have made it perfectly clear that they will not rest until they destroy us. A reduction in apprehensions for illegal immigration does not negate the need to secure the borders for national security reasons.
Along with border security, we need better internal enforcement. Roughly 40 percent of all illegal immigrants in our country came here legally via work or student visas that have now expired. We need to monitor the legal status of the visas we issue more closely. We should also make it easier for entrepreneurs and students with advanced degrees to come to America, or stay in America, by increasing the number of H-1B visas available to them.
Regarding guest workers, we need an accurate system that verifies a persons eligibility to work through a criminal background check and ID verification. This system should be universally mandated to employers because illegal employment is a two-way street. This would hold more employers accountable for hiring illegal workers, and simultaneously discourage illegal immigration by making it more difficult to work here illegally.
An efficient guest worker program would give an advantage to law-abiding immigrants, create a disadvantage to those who break the law, and ensure that Californias agricultural industry would have the labor force they need.
Immigration reform is acontentious issue, but we should not let it become the new third rail of politics. It has the potential to benefit those who choose to work within the system, and our national security depends on it.
John Allan Peschong served in President Ronald Reagans administration and later as a senior strategist for the campaigns of President George W. Bush. He is a founding partner of Meridian Pacific Inc., a public relations and public affairs company, and serves as chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party.