Spare us your pandering on immigration, Republicans

Last week I chose not to post Pat Bertroche’s disgusting comments about inserting michochips in illegal immigrants, because they struck me as a bid to gain attention for an irrevelant Congressional campaign. Bertroche himself said “you have to be radical to get news press.” His comment drew coverage not only in Iowa, but on national blogs like Talking Points Memo and on cable news networks, including Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show.  

Unfortunately, pandering to voters on immigration isn’t just for sideshows like Bertroche, who will be lucky to get 5 percent of the vote in the third Congressional district GOP primary. During the Republican gubernatorial debate on May 1, all three candidates made false and misleading claims about illegal immigration.  

If you missed the debate between Terry Branstad, Bob Vander Plaats and Rod Roberts, you can watch it online or read the full transcript here. Early in the debate, Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette asked the candidates to name one service government provides today that it should stop providing to save money. Roberts answered first:

Roberts: There are at least two that I can think of but one that I would recommend immediately is that we have, I think, an issue here in Iowa where there are adults present in our state who reside in the state of Iowa illegally.  They are not to be here and I have recommended that we look seriously at denying benefits to resident alien adults in the state and that we save perhaps as much as $92 million in state funding to those who have applied for benefits but are not entitled to them.

Roberts: I actually co-sponsored legislation this past year that would require the Department of Human Services to develop rules that would ensure that when a person applies for benefits through the Department of Human Services they present a verifiable social security numbers.  We’ve got to get a handle on just exactly who is applying for and receiving benefits at the expense of Iowa’s taxpayers.  And I think that we can save a considerable amount of money if we would make certain that only those who are legally here and entitled to these benefits receive them.

Branstad spoke next, noting his agreement with Roberts on immigration before mentioning other cost savings for government. When it was Bob Vander Plaats’ turn to speak, he commented,

First of all, on illegal immigration, if we can save $100 million from people who are here illegally then we should do that.  We shouldn’t be granting services at the expense of the taxpayers and that’s why I came out very strong this week when Arizona brought up the new illegal immigration stance that they took and said that not only do I support that but I would promote that as Iowa’s next governor. We’ve had a federal government that has become totally inept on that issue.  

Here’s what got lost in the discussion: the state of Iowa doesn’t pay out anything close to $100 million in “benefits” to illegal immigrants. Bleeding Heartland covered this ground a few months ago when statehouse Republicans advocated about $300 million in alleged budget savings.

The biggest line item is “$92.3 million, end all state benefits to adult illegal immigrants.” The Iowa House Republican caucus claims this number comes from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The implication is that the state of Iowa hands out $92.3 million in cash to illegal immigrants.

But that’s not the case. From a report by the Legislative Services Agency on “Undocumented Immigrants’ Cost to the State” (pdf file):

The only government services that illegal immigrants are eligible for are elementary and secondary public education and emergency health care.1 Most citizens do not gain direct benefits from a majority of government spending. Instead, government programs are intended to benefit society as a whole through maintenance of a healthy economy, satisfying public health and safety concerns, providing basic infrastructure, etc. Although undocumented immigrants do not receive most direct benefits, the total benefit of State spending is assumed to accrue to undocumented immigrants at the same rate as legal residents.

The LSA divides total spending from the state general fund by the state’s total population to calculate roughly how much in “benefits” each Iowa resident receives annually. This isn’t a cash payment from the state to residents; it represents each individual’s share of benefit from the state paying for schools, roads, and so on.

Iowa House Republicans arrived at the $92.3 million figure by dividing total general fund expenditures by the number of undocumented immigrants currently estimated to be living in Iowa. They call the remainder “benefits” that illegal immigrants receive. But there’s no magic wand we can wave to make immigrants stop benefiting indirectly from what state government does. The same LSA report noted:

Undocumented immigrants qualify for few services at the State level, and those for which they do qualify are largely mandated by federal law or the Courts. Therefore, decreasing undocumented immigrant eligibility for State spending does not appear to be a viable policy option. Additionally, if the assumption that undocumented immigrants accrue benefits even without receiving direct services is considered valid, attempting to reduce direct State expenditures on undocumented immigrants would have a minimal effect.

By the way, proof of citizenship and identification are already required for Iowans participating in Medicaid and HAWK-I (the children’s health insurance program).

Having served in the Iowa House for 10 years, Roberts should know that undocumented immigrants aren’t receiving $92 million a year in monetary “benefits” that we can take away. He should also know that his proposed bill was unnecessary, because people already must show proof of identification when applying for Medicaid or other benefits. I don’t know whether he is ill-informed or purposely stretching the truth. Jason Hancock raised another important point that Roberts glossed over: according to research by the non-partisan Iowa Policy Project, “the average undocumented family in Iowa pays an around $1,671 each year in taxes, or about 80 percent of a documented family in Iowa earning the same income.”

Later in the debate, Paul Yeager of Iowa Public Television referenced Arizona’s new immigration law, which Vander Plaats endorsed last week. Yeager then asked how immigration could be used to repopulate rural parts of Iowa that have been losing residents. All three candidates jumped at the chance to say they support legal immigration, but none of them could resist tossing in a little more demagoguery. After recounting how his administration as well as his predecessor’s welcomed legal immigrants, Branstad added,

But we don’t want people coming here illegally and using our resources and as we said before we don’t want them to be able to take welfare and Medicaid and Iowa Cares money away from our own citizens.

Branstad: And we don’t want sanctuary cities and we don’t want to see amnesty for people that come here illegally.  […]  If the federal government refuses to enforce and it is their responsibility to enforce the immigration laws then we should work with local law enforcement to fashion something that meets Iowa.  We’re not Arizona, we’re not a border state, we ought to do something that fits the needs of our state, Iowa.

Branstad should be asked to back up his assertion that undocumented immigrants are stealing Medicaid and Iowa Cares funds. Also, no Iowa politician that I know of has advocated “sanctuary cities” or amnesty for undocumented immigrants. While Branstad didn’t endorse the Arizona law for Iowa, I would have preferred a more principled objection than “we’re not a border state.” Some Republicans have spoken out against the law on constitutional grounds.

Vander Plaats answered next:

Well, again, when I came out with my economic development platform you would see that I wanted to make Iowa hospitable for Iowans, I wanted to make Iowa hospitable for those people who left Iowa who want to come back to Iowa but I also said I want to embrace legal immigration, I want to attract the best and the brightest here to start up business and industry.  It’s not that I’m against immigration.  As a matter of fact, I’ve said if you let the Dutch in, Vander Plaats, you should let anybody in.  But they came here legally and that’s the key difference.

Vander Plaats: Now, on illegal immigration, there’s nothing honoring about being illegal.  And I believe we need to hold accountable — we have a federal government that has been completely inept on this.  And Governor Branstad is right, we’re not Arizona, but illegal is illegal and Iowans still have a real respect for the rule of law.  So, I believe we need to hold those who are here illegally accountable.  I believe we need to hold those people who knowingly employ, knowingly transport or knowingly harbor accountable and hopefully if enough states like Arizona, like Oklahoma, when I’m governor like Iowa, we say, you know what, we are going to hold accountable because we have a respect for the rule of law. Maybe the federal government will start listening. […]

It’s true, the Vander Plaats economic development plan includes steps to encourage “cutting-edge entrepreneurs to legally immigrate to Iowa,” the way Israel has done.

But as an Israeli might say, it takes chutzpah to talk about the “rule of law” as you applaud a big expansion of police powers. Arizona’s law allows the police to demand that you show papers proving you’re a legal resident, and if you can’t produce documents immediately, you’re guilty until proven innocent. Commentators across the spectrum have pointed out that it will lead to racial profiling. Furthermore, the new law will probably “force [police] officers to prioritize immigration enforcement over all other public safety responsibilities.”

Vander Plaats’ comment about previous generations of Dutch immigrants is disingenuous too. This has become a popular Republican talking point; at the same forum where Bertroche talked about microchips, Congressional candidate Brad Zaun told the audience,

“Illegals are killing us financially,” added Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale. Illegal immigrants receive education, health care and other services, often without paying for them, he said. […]

“All the illegal people who are here, put them on a bus and send them wherever they came from,” [Zaun] said. “I want what my great-grandfather from Germany went through. They should go through the process that all people who have come to this country have gone through.”

Truth is, Zaun’s great-grandfather and Vander Plaats’ ancestors didn’t “go through” anything like the process today’s immigrants face. During the 1800s, there were no quotas, visas or other limits on immigration from Europe. Quotas didn’t become law in the U.S. until 1921.

When it was his turn to answer Yeager’s question, Rod Roberts talked about how Iowa has always welcomed people from different cultures and ethnic groups, because Iowans “highly value and prize the meaning and value of citizenship.” He added,

And those who come and who come here legally and work hard and many of them go on to apply for citizenship and they become citizens, they too highly prize that very important status.  But those who come illegally should know that when it comes to the law it will be enforced.  The citizens of this state are not obligated to provide taxpayer funded benefits to people who are here illegally.  If they are here illegally we should say no to providing benefits, remove the incentive for being here and they will relocate somewhere else.

Roberts: I believe we should require people to verify that they are actually who they are when they apply for benefits from the state of Iowa.  Businesses should also verify that people they employ are here legally and if businesses don’t do that then there should be punitive measures.  We want to welcome people, we want Iowa to be home to new people, but we want them to come legally and enjoy citizenship like all of the rest of us do.

As I discussed above, Roberts falsely claims that $92 million in taxpayer dollars goes to undocumented immigrants and wrongly implies that Iowa residents can apply for state benefits without showing identification. Remember, the Legislative Services Agency concluded in 2007, “Undocumented immigrants qualify for few services at the State level, and those for which they do qualify are largely mandated by federal law or the Courts. Therefore, decreasing undocumented immigrant eligibility for State spending does not appear to be a viable policy option.”

Like Branstad and Vander Plaats, Roberts mentioned that businesses should make sure their employees are legal residents, but he offered no specifics about enforcing that requirement.

Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio asked the next question, about whether children of illegal immigrants should qualify for in-state tuition at Iowa’s regents universities and community colleges. All three Republicans said no. Vander Plaats claimed that if Iowa holds “businesses who knowingly hire illegal immigrants” accountable, “you’ll dry up the reason for [undocumented immigrants] to be here.” He added that all students in our schools should learn English so that “we’re speaking a common language with inside our classrooms.” That’s good red meat for the Republican base, but there are very few bilingual schools in Iowa. (The Corning School District is an interesting exception to the rule.)

Roberts again claimed that if we “eliminate those taxpayer provided state benefits to adults who are here illegally and if it’s not possible for them to be employed,” families will move away, so in-state tuition for their kids won’t be an issue. Over at Iowa Independent, Jason Hancock noted that Roberts “failed to mention his support for the IOWA Act in 2004, a bill that would have granted in-state college tuition to children who are not legal residents.” He’s lucky his Republican rivals didn’t call him out on that flip-flop.

Branstad endorsed Roberts’ comments about in-state tuition and verifying the identity of all who receive state benefits. Not to be outdone, he also volunteered that he once resigned from a commission on health care because “Governor [Tom] Vilsack and some of the democrats on that committee were insisting that we provide health care benefits, which the federal government doesn’t even do, to children of illegals […].”

Dorman asked the last question during the immigration segment of the debate: “There has been talk among you of savings possibly by ending illegal immigration but aren’t there also budgetary burdens that might be born by local governments and state government if you take over immigration enforcement from the federal government?”

Roberts agreed and expressed concern about the cost of implementing Arizona’s law in Iowa. The law provides for up to six months in prison for people convicted of being illegal immigrants, and Roberts wondered how much that would cost Iowa taxpayers. It’s too bad Roberts didn’t criticize the Arizona law on principled as well as pragmatic grounds.

When it was his turn, Branstad suggested that cracking down on immigration violations could save substantial law enforcement resources by reducing the trade in meth and other illegal drugs. Someone who’s more knowledgeable about drug policy will have to evaluate that claim. Mexican cartels were among the first to manufacture and distribute meth on a large scale in this country, and undocumented immigrants have been used to smuggle meth in Iowa. On the other hand, a large meth ring broken up in Iowa last year didn’t appear to have any immigrant involvement.

Vander Plaats rejected the premise of Dorman’s question. Without explaining why, he claimed it won’t cost Iowa more to crack down on illegal immigration, and “we’re actually going to save money if we hold people who are here illegally accountable.” Vander Plaats also said unnamed members of a drug agency task force had once told him that to deal with the illegal drug and weapons trades, “you need to secure the border, you need to hold illegal immigrants accountable for being here.” That may be true, but giving new responsibilities to local and state law enforcement agencies would obviously incur costs. Vander Plaats should explain how he would pay for the immigration policies he advocates.

In her column on the Republican debate, Kathie Obradovich argued, “to suggest that [cracking down on illegal immigrants] is the answer to Iowa’s budget problems is a cop-out that misleads voters.” Expect to hear more of this demagoguery before the June 8 primary. Not only does bashing “illegals” appeal to the GOP base, it also conceals the Republicans’ reluctance to suggest real program cuts to back up their promises on state spending.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread. I’m particularly interested to know whether you think the Republican candidates for governor believe their own rhetoric on immigration.

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  • There is no good answer on illegal immigration

    Cracking down on illegal immigrants won’t help most of Iowa’s budget problems.

    I don’t know what the compassionate answer to the immigration question.  I know President Obama likely won’t sit down with Calderon to actually deal with the matter.  This is a issue where the Chamber of Commerce and certain unions tend to agree, gee I wonder why.

    i do tend to agree with Byron Dorgan on the matter;…

    I know his position isn’t pragmatic and that it isn’t going to gain me any friends on this blog.