In 2010, Arizona passed arguably the most stringent immigration law in recent memory.  Somewhere in the midst of all the political racket and hype, a gauntlet was thrown.  President Obama could either make good on his promise to achieve comprehensive immigration reform or prepare to accept a patchwork of state immigration policies.

In 2011, another shot was fired across the bow.  Utah passed a hybrid immigration bill that paired a softer version of Arizona’s SB1070 with a guest worker program.  The idea was simple, avoid the political pitfalls of Arizona’s enforcement-only policy while also doing something economically productive. 

Utah’s guest worker program required undocumented workers to become proficient in English, pass an FBI criminal background check, and pay a fine up to $2,500.  In return, immigrants and their immediate families would receive temporary residency for two years.  Their stay, of course, would have to be conditioned on their ability to stay employed. 

In contrast, Arizona’s enforcement-only policy became an economic wrecking ball.  The aftermath led to the unprecedented recall of Arizona’s most powerful politician, Senate President Pearce Russell.  Russell, the author of SB1070, was the first-sitting State Senator to be effectively recalled in Arizona history.  The message couldn’t get much clearer: policies that harm the economy have swift political consequences.     

So the question Wisconsinites should ask themselves, should we choose the more austere path of Arizona or the carrot and stick approach of Utah? 

According to the Center for American Progress, the hysteria that surrounded Arizona’s SB1070 cost the state dearly.  It led to a loss of approximately 2,700 jobs, $217 million in direct spending on lodging, restaurants, and general tourism, and a loss of $535 million in lost tax revenues, economic output, and earnings. Usually, Republicans make no secret of being adamant free-marketeers, but sometimes their xenophobic prejudices (and yes, they have them) can run contrary to the economic interests of their constituencies.

Tim Kane and Kirk Johnson of the Heritage Foundation wrote, “The argument that immigrants harm the American economy should be dismissed out of hand . . . The increase in immigration flow has corresponded with steady and substantial reductions in unemployment from 7.3% to 5.1% over the past two decades.” 

Roger Noriega and Megan Davy, research fellows of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote, “These caps [limit of legal visas], however, can be increased as needed to accommodate our own interests, such as the apparent consensus that temporary immigrants are vital to our economy and that we must normalize a large number of undocumented immigrants already living in the shadows in our country.”

The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are two respectable conservative think tanks both concluding that immigrants don’t harm the economy, they help it.  They don’t steal jobs, they reduce unemployment rates.  It cannot be emphasized enough that undocumented workers respond to free market demand largely unsatisfied by the American workforce.  The greater the demand for low-wage labor, the greater the extent of illegal immigration.   

El Conquistador asked Bill Wright, the architect of Utah’s immigration bill, why a state as red as Utah would want a guest worker program?  He responded that our country has neither the resources nor the will to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.  “If they are here,” Wright asked, “why not make them more productive?”

It’s obvious that certain factions of the Republican Party do not share Wright’s view on illegal immigration.  In 2005, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner led a House effort to reform immigration by beefing up border security and ordering harsher punishments on employers that knowingly hire undocumented workers.  When the Senate later added a temporary worker program that provided undocumented workers an avenue to permanent residency, Sensenbrenner threw a fit calling it “amnesty” and said it was a “non-starter” in his book. 

Not all conservatives share Sensenbrenner’s hardline views on immigration.  The American Enterprise Institute said this about Sensenbrenner’s objection:  “Make no mistake, the hard-liners in Congress will continue to cry amnesty to discredit any plan that offers ‘legalization’ to any undocumented immigrants, a tactic that succeeded in convincing the House [Of 2005] to pass a bill that focused on strict enforcement, but failed to address either a temporary worker program or offer any alternative to mass deportations.”

That was in 2005, so perhaps the country will have better luck with the next generation of Republicans.  Dale Kooyenga, whose Assembly district is evenly split between Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties, is open to any immigration proposal that can strengthen the spirits of a hobbling economy.  He recognized that Wisconsin needs to have a discussion about immigration reform sooner, not later. 

During Scott Walker’s campaign for Governor, he promised to create 250,000 jobs by the end of his first term.  The task is what some might call Herculean, so wouldn’t now be the time to consider programs that supply businesses with the workers they want most, when they want them, and where they want them?  Wisconsin has made some positive strides recently by balancing a state budget without raising taxes on small businesses.  However, we need more.  We need a program that inspires every part of society to become more productive.

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