Immigrants use fraction of amount they contribute to Ark. economy

LITTLE ROCK

A report prepared for legislators says Arkansas pays about $170 million a year to educate, imprison and provide services to immigrants a fraction of the amount, according to a separate study, that they contribute to the state’s economy.

The bulk of the money spent on immigrants goes toward education, about $154 million. State agencies said it is sometimes impossible to tell whether legal or illegal immigrants are benefiting from state services.

“Immigration law is about as bad as tax laws with all of the ifs, ands or buts,” said Andre Guerrero, director of programs for language minority students at the state Department of Education. For example, he said, pupils in the country illegally can be educated in public schools at the state’s expense, but Arkansas won’t let them qualify for state-funded college scholarships.

“Their counselors very proudly are preparing them to go to college (and say), ‘There’s something you need to know.’ And at that point, these doors close to these children, these students,” Guerrerro said.

The idea of tax dollars paying to educate the children of illegal immigrants drew criticism from several lawmakers during the joint House and Senate meeting of their Committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. State Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, suggested requiring incoming students to furnish a Social Security number; Guerrero said that would be “chilling.”

About 88 percent of all English-language learners in state schools speak Spanish. Guerrero said most need three or four years to test out of the program which cost $19.3 million as of October 2006. The other $134 million came from regular education funding.

The Springdale School District ranked first among English-language learning students with 6,126 about 37 percent of the district’s 16,511 students.

In the judicial system, illegal immigrants comprised a small percentage of overall costs. The state Department of Correction estimated it spent $1.8 million last year to house 158 illegal immigrants. Currently, the state has 14,173 inmates. Out of 52,000 offenders under parole or probation supervision, only 283 are illegal immigrants.

The state prison system sends the name of every foreign-born inmate to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and most are deported after finishing their sentence. However, some do end up being released for two weeks before ICE tries to deport them, said Veter Howard, a deputy director at the state Department of Community Correction.

The department lists 113 illegal immigrants under parole supervision, with another 169 on probation.

“Generally, they are picked up,” Howard said. “Apparently, these are people who have fallen through the cracks.”

State Rep. Jon Woods said the statistics offered by the state counterbalance those from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. A foundation’s study earlier this year concluded that state manufacturers and other companies would lose about $1.4 billion in production a year and pay $95 million more for higher wages if illegal immigrants left Arkansas’ work force.

Woods, R-Springdale, described those numbers as only “one side” of the discussion.

“It’s not flawed. They just don’t have the full story,” Woods said. “It’s missing a few pages.”

Census estimates show Arkansas has more than 141,000 Hispanic residents, many living in the northwest corner of the state. Recent studies concluded about half of the state’s immigrant population lives in the United States illegally.

The Arkansas study comes after legislatures Oklahoma and Tennessee passed strict laws regarding illegal immigration. Green warned Arkansas could become “a safe haven” for illegal immigrants without stricter laws.

Woods said the committee would meet again in September to examine how much immigrants cost the state in health care services.

State Rep. Billy Wade Gaskill urged his colleagues to get “cranked up” on ways to solve the problems of illegal immigration, but cautioned against simple suspicion of outsiders.

“We’re beginning to look askance at those that are here illegal,” said Gaskill, D-Paragould. “If we’re in Wal-Mart and we see a couple speaking Spanish, they may be very legal, but we begin to wonder. This is going to cause us a problem way over this country.”

– Associated Press



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