Can Arizona really afford this immigration law?

The measure will cost much more than state coffers allow. Is it really worth it?

Published April 30, 2010 9:01PM (EDT)

Arizona's harsh new immigration law has taken quite a beating in the past week.

President Obama has called it “misguided” and promised to keep an eye on it. Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government may challenge the law. Calls for boycott are multiplying, threatening to stagnate Arizona’s already weakened economy.

But maybe the state's lawmakers should see all these potential obstacles as a blessing. Because the truth is, Arizona may not be able to afford this law anyway.

No detailed estimate of the new law's costs has yet been calculated, but the Immigration Policy Center’s blog, Immigration Impact, did dig out a revealing fact sheet that was put together by Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden back in 2006, when a similar bill was passed (only to be vetoed by then Governor Janet Napolitano).

It estimated that just for Yuma alone, one of 15 Arizona counties, enforcement of the law would require at least $20 million -- and that the news costs could actually reach close to $100 million. Compare that to the money Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the new law last Friday, has allocated for local law enforcement in the whole state: $10 million dollars of federal stimulus money. (Keep in mind that Arizona has a state deficit of more than $3 billion.)

Sheriff Ogden's fact sheet broke down the new costs thusly:

· Between $775,880 and $1,163,820 in processing expenses for law enforcement agencies (with the availability of officers for other needs also reduced by 12 per cent)

· Jail costs that would range from $21,195,600 to $96,086,720

· Attorney and staff fees of between $810,067 and $1,620,134

This isn't counting extra jail beds, hiring extra cops, lawsuits that may arise (there are some already on the way).

But maybe the law is good for the economy in the long run? Conservatives have argued that foreign workers not only take American jobs but also lower wages. By this logic, if the law succeeds in chasing illegal immigrants from Arizona, leaving only the native, better-educated workers, wages will increase, and ready workers will pile up.

It's not that simple, though. The problem, according to Judith Gans of the Immigration Policy Project at the University of Arizona, is that in some sectors of the economy, 45 percent of workers are foreign-born, with many of them here illegaly. (Figures from a Pew Hispanic Center study show that, countrywide, 29 percent of the foreign-born in 2005 were unauthorized – Arizona has 500,000 of that 29.)

“If an industry loses 30 to 40 percent [of their workers]," Gans told Salon, " certain sectors of the economy would have some serious labor problems.”

Industries would shrink because increased wages would cause companies to hire less, and the price of products would go up -- with the added cost heaped onto the consumer. And those 500,000 illegal immigrants (and plenty of legal citizens who don’t like the idea of being randomly asked for their papers) will leave, taking their tax dollars with them.

“If things get too unpleasant in Arizona,” says Gans, “foreign workers will go to another state.”

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce has pronounced itself neutral on the law and the Arizona Office of Tourism is not giving any interviews. But in a statement to The Arizona Republic today, the state’s hotel & lodging association said six groups have canceled meeting or convention plans, with reservations ranging from 20 to 120 rooms. If that doesn’t cause too much of a pang, maybe we should remember the early 1990s boycott of the state for not recognizing the Martin Luther King holiday -- which cost Arizona more than $300 million.

A “Don’t Boycott Arizona” Facebook page is pleading with consumers to not punish the whole state because of a law their governor signed. But the state’s economic troubles as a result of the law may lie deeper than that.

By Miranda Simon

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