Columns » Ernest Dumas

Arkansas's immigrant future


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Arkansas is an outlier in the big immigration debate, the assumption being that Republicans have it about right: White Arkansans hate the influx of immigrants, particularly Latinos, over the past 20 years and are in no mood to have life made any better for them.

The politics of immigration seems particularly one-sided in Arkansas, as it is nearly everywhere in the Deep South. Only Sen. Mark Pryor in the Arkansas delegation voted for the bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate or favors anything like it in the House of Representatives. Pryor may pay for his boldness next year. His opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, is an extremist even among his Republican brethren on immigration, as on most other matters. Most Republicans, including the rest of the Arkansas congressional team, say vaguely they wouldn't mind passing immigration reform, including a path to citizenship someday, but not one associated with Barack Obama.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, following the wishes of business and farm groups, favored reforms less sweeping than the 2013 Senate bill (Pryor didn't at the time) and she was swamped in 2010, although immigration was the least of her problems.

But neither Cotton nor Pryor is apt to make too much of their differences on immigration because it is just not that riveting in Arkansas and there are more divisive and emotional issues to talk about. Some of Cotton's big-business support likes immigration and backs something like amnesty.

Immigrants make up only 5 percent of the Arkansas population, and all but a third of them are in Pulaski and three big northwest Arkansas counties. Cotton has a pocket of them in his little west Arkansas county but for most Arkansans immigrants are someone else's problem, although many believe that they are paying taxes to take care of all those Mexicans who aren't paying any taxes themselves.

But immigration ought to be a burning question, even in sleepy Arkansas. It is a fateful issue for a state whose economy and social welfare have been affected by even the relatively small numbers of immigrants and will be affected far more in the decades ahead.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation did a deep study of immigration's impact on the state since 1990, and the results defy the refrain that immigration — or what is called "illegal" immigration — has been a great burden on us. If anything, it has been a salvation, adding a little fillip to an economy that made it through the big recession better than most.

Take the question of whether all those people who crossed the Mexican border and settled here have been a burden. The foundation's researchers concluded that indeed the state government budget suffered very slightly. In 2010, immigrants directly paid $525 million in income, small-business, property and highway-user taxes but received services from the state that exceeded their contributions by $31 million, chiefly the public schools but also jails and medical care at state-subsidized hospitals.

Lest you say "Aha," the state budget is not the true picture. The combined consumer spending and tax contributions from immigrants totaled $3.9 billion in 2010. When you subtract the $556 million in government spending on the immigrants, that leaves a net positive economic impact of $3.4 billion. Sure, a good chunk of that would be the spending of well-paid immigrant physicians and surgeons, mostly Asian, who make up 17 percent of the medical profession.

The popular image of immigrants, particularly Latinos, is that they are slackers who somehow mooch off society. At the depth of the recession, 88 percent of Latino men in Arkansas were employed — higher than any immigrant group or native-born.

Of course, they earn less because they typically hold low-wage jobs in manufacturing, construction and agriculture. That leads to the other "Aha." They take jobs other people don't want because the pay is so meager. Unions have fought for tougher immigration laws for that reason: immigrants tend to restrain wages. Unions came around, reluctantly, on the immigration reform bill, which gives "illegal" immigrants a rugged 13-year path to citizenship and toughens enforcement.

The Rockefeller team concluded that the Latinos lowered the wage bill of Arkansas manufacturers by $52 million in 2010, a savings they theorized was passed on to consumers.

But it is the future that ought to concern. While non-citizen immigrants make up only 5 percent of the population, they are 7 percent of workers and the figure will rise sharply even though immigration across the southern border has slowed to a crawl since 2009 and would slow further under the dramatically improved enforcement of the immigration bill.

Children of immigrants make up not 5 but 10 percent of children in K-12 schools and the numbers will grow. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of Latino children grew by 38,000 while the number of non-Hispanic white children fell by 23,000. White family sizes are shrinking and immigrant family sizes are growing. Eighty-three percent of the Latino children, by the way, are citizens who were born in the United States.

They constitute a huge part of Arkansas's economic and cultural future, and we ought to see to it that they have all the educational and economic opportunities that we can give them, for our own sake. Why would we want to keep them and their families in the shadows?

Mike Huckabee saw the light. Where is he when we need him?


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