Give us your tired, your poor ... UPDATE | Arkansas Blog

Give us your tired, your poor ... UPDATE

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... and we'll kick their butts back to Mexico.

The immigration hearing before a legislative committee today was long and multi-faceted. But an important issue arose. The State Police disclosed that it had begun inquiries to find out how a cooperative program with the feds to enforce immigration laws would work and what it would cost. The agency was directed to do this in 2005, but has ignored the directive until recently in part because of funding concerns.

There's no change in the concerns about funding. The State Police said they could not undertake additional duties for enforcing immigration laws without additional manpower and that means more than $100,000 to hire, train, equip and pay each new trooper.

The attention isn't all bad. Legal experts studying this issue have dug up a statute (16-81-106) that allows any certified law officer in Arkansas to work in these cooperative programs, but only pursuant to a memo of understanding between "the state of Arkansas" and the federal government. Does this mean city and county immigrant SWAT teams planned in NW Ark. can't go to work rousting chicken plant workers until there's a memo between the state and feds? Sounds like the argument could be made.

UPDATE: Go to the jump for John Williams' fact-filled report on the four-hearing immigration show trial.

A marathon four-hour hearing at the Capitol today took the cost of illegal immigration to state agencies as its ostensible topic, but discussion went far beyond that, as most panel members wanted a chance to put in their two cents on wider immigration issues. The unsurprising general line was an expression of friendship toward Latinos, but not those who break the law. Plenty of bloviating and absentminded questioning all around. One panel member asked if he could mark on the notebook he’d been provided. Rep. Jon Woods professed his belief that the Marshallese (who are well-represented in his home, Springdae) are a great civilization. It was a long session.

The show kicked off in a ridiculous fashion, as the committee screened two news reports - one from Georgia and the other from Oklahoma -- on state laws to force out illegal immigrants. That’s right -- forget about any actual reporting on what the Oklahoma and Georgia laws are and what their effect has been, just show what the local TV news has to say about it.

There was a bit more rigor in the rest of the agenda. Five state agencies (State Police, Education, Health, Human Services, Workers’ Comp); three associations (Hospital Association, State Chamber of Commerce, Farm Bureau); and the AFL-CIO gave presentations and answered panel members’ questions. (No questions from the peanut gallery, much to the chagrin of one man in a shirt that said “Arkansas Immigration and Enforcement Commission: Report and Deport,” who stormed out of the hearing room after the chairman approached him to explain the procedure for signing up to speak.)

The report from the state police has already been summarized. Some other interesting points to emerge from the police testimony: according to Rep. Woods, seven Rogers police officers will be certified today to handle immigration issues under Immigration and Nationality Act Section 287(g), a federal clause that allows local officers to enforce federal immigration laws. But can they do so without a state agreement with the feds? Tim K’Nuckles of the state police testified that there are no more than 3 bilingual officers on state police staff. Lots of bitching all around about the federal government -- one representative suggested the state establish a ‘stockade’ to house illegals until the Feds decide to come get them.

Questioning wasn’t quite so heavy for the other agencies. Here’s a breakdown of other testimony:

AFL-CIO: Focus here was on 1099 misclassification fraud--i.e., people who pay their workers cash under the table in order to evade taxes. Alan Hughes, the union’s state director, stressed that this is not just an illegal immigrant problem--there are plenty of contractors bilking the government who use legal immigrants and citizens.

Department of Education: Deputy Commissioner Diana Julian testified that there is no good way to tell how many illegal immigrants are in the state’s school system: although 17,451 out of the 465, 615 haven’t reported a Social Security Number, the state doesn’t require them. Just because someone hasn’t given a SSN doesn’t mean they’re illegal.

Department of Health: Joseph Bates, Deputy State Health Officer, said that although the department collects ethnicity information, it doesn’t make proof of citizenship a prerequisite for services. Some services, such as maternity care, are federally mandated. Based on a recent Rockefeller report, illegal immigrants cost the department $199,000 a year.

The Marshall Islands also came up in this part of the testimony. (Hence Woods’ praise of the civilization.) According to Bates there are 8,000 (legal) Marshalleese immigrants in Springdale. They’re the most unhealthy immigrant group in the state, known to suffer from TB, VD, and leprosy. Not a single case of the latter has been cured. Bates also said that, in contrast to Hawaii, which has $10 million federal dollars for its Micronesian population, Arkansas gets nothing for its Marshall Islanders. (“That’s horrible!” gasped someone on the panel.)

Workers Comp: The topic of Workers Comp came up in the AFL-CIO presentation, but it was a bit confused. Butch Reeves, chairman of the Workers Comp Commission, cleared things up a bit. The way the process works is that the employer is responsible for benefits up to $75,000 if a worker is injured; if he dies on the job, or if the cost of injuries goes beyond $75,000, then the Workers’ Comp Commission picks up the slack. Reeves said that the Commission was sending benefits to two families in Mexico whose breadwinner had died on the job, but he was unsure whether those two workers were legal or illegal.

Any worker, legal or illegal, is eligible for benefits--assuming he files a claim with the Commission proving that he was injured on the job, the employer has to pay up. Reeves pointed out, however, that most illegals don’t file a claim for fear of being deported.

Reeves also testified that the Commission has run into some issues with Social Security Numbers--it has no way to verify them, but the Feds have refused to check them.

Arkansas Hospital Association: Bo Ryall, Executive VP, spoke. He said that uncompensated care cost hospitals $324 million dollars in 2005, about 7 percent of the entire hospital budget. Not much talk about immigration here. Ryall said that anyone who shows up at an emergency department will be cared for regardless of ability to pay.

Chamber of Commerce: Executive VP Kenny Hall stressed the Chamber’s position that immigration needs to be dealt with on the federal level. Going into the fourth straight hour of testimony everyone seemed to be getting muddled: there was little distinction between illegal and legal immigration here. Hall’s report was mainly a rehash of the recent Rockefeller study and agreed with its conclusion that immigration is bringing the state a net benefit.

Farm Bureau: Director of Governmental Affairs Rodney Baker said that of the 3 million farm workers nationwide, about 1 million are hired laborers. If illegal immigrants are subtracted, that number dips to 500,000 and you’ve got a real labor shortage. A federal guest worker program brings about 30,000 workers--far short of what’s needed. That won’t cut it for Arkansas, said Baker. He estimated that if the state’s illegal immigrant were to leave, $2.4 million to $7.9 million in farm income would be lost in the short term, and more in the long term.

He also crunched some numbers to figure out what it would take for farms to lure labor if illegal immigrants left the state. The average farm wage is currently $9.50 an hour; the average wage for food preparation is $6.64. So there’s potential to attract workers from other industries in search of higher pay. Because of geographical considerations however--most food preparation workers can’t just pick up from the city and start working the land--Baker estimates that the average farm wage would have to jump to somewhere between $11 and $14.50 an hour.

Overall, a tangential session that often shied away from the proposed topic. If the hearings tell us anything, it’s that Jon Woods wants people to be damn sure that he’s against breaking the law.

-- John C. Williams

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