Summit pushes for new approach to immigration reform

Summit pushes for new approach to immigration reform

Jewish Herald-Voice

December 29, 2011

Houstonians invited to attend on Jan. 10

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to decide whether Arizona can enforce provisions of its anti-immigration legislation, a group of Houstonians plans to advance an alternative approach to immigration reform. The Houston group, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee Houston Region and The Kinder Institute For Urban Research, advocates a policy that would identify, document and tax undocumented workers in Texas.

Advocates say their approach to immigration reform could be implemented even without federal legislation and would add hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues to Harris County and the surrounding area.

Immigration reform advocates will present their findings at the AJC’s Bridging America Summit, “The Cost Savings of Implementing Immigration Reform,” on Jan. 10 at 8 a.m., at the Rice Memorial Center Ballroom on the Rice University campus. Chaired by Marcia and Mike Nichols, the summit will focus on cost savings that would occur with immigration reform.

Presenters will include Larry Kellner, Greater Houston Partnership; Deacon Joe Rubio, Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston; David Lopez, Harris County Hospital District; Juliet Stipeche, HISD board of trustees, District 8; and a representative from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. Dr. Stephen Klineberg from Rice University will moderate the discussion.

Sensible reform
Mike Nichols said the current immigration system obviously is broken. What’s needed, he said, is a program of “sensible immigration reform.”

“Thus far, the federal government has been unable to make any improvements in our immigration program,” said Nichols. “There are voices that say we can’t make any reforms until the borders are proven to be impermeable. That kind of thinking is very costly to the citizens of the U.S. and particularly Texas. We advocate an approach that would identify, document and tax currently undocumented workers. That’s what this summit is about. We will present the actual economic costs of our failure to have immigration reform. And, we believe our approach will significantly reduce the current costs in education, security, health care brought about by the failure to move forward on immigration reform.”

If one excludes obvious appeals to racism and nativism, much of the current immigration debate centers on costs versus economic benefits associated with undocumented workers in Texas. It is estimated there are 600,000 undocumented people living in Harris and surrounding counties and about 1.7 million in Texas.

The vast majority of this population comes to Texas because the state has jobs – even though most of these pay low wages. However, under the current system, the income from these workers doesn’t translate into economic benefits for Texas. There are two major reasons. First, Texas has no income tax. Second, Texas fails to capture a large portion of the tax revenue that should be paid by these workers.

I-9 ‘loophole’
Stan Marek, CEO of the Marek Family of Companies, explained: “The estimated 600,000 undocumented in Harris and surrounding counties translated into about 280,000 working people. Until recently, about 50 percent of that number worked in the underground economy as independent subcontractors or labor not on payroll. That’s because they’ve been misclassified and are responsible for their own taxes and accident insurance.”

Meanwhile, in the past five years, said Marek, U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up its audits of employers. ICE reviews Employment Eligibility Verification forms (I-9s), which are required to be completed at the beginning of employment. The I-9 is supposed to verify an employee’s identity and his/her legal authorization to work in the U.S.

However, there’s a huge loophole in the system: An I-9 is not required for independent contractors and subcontractors.

“When ICE runs I-9 forms through their databases, if they find the name does not match the given social security number, ICE then takes people on payrolls who are paying taxes and makes employers like me terminate them,” continued Marek. “So, where do these workers go? They go into the underground economy, paying no taxes, having accident insurance. ICE gives employees 60 days to get things fixed, assuming they are legal. But, many cannot because they are not legal.”

Marek estimates that perhaps an additional 25 percent of all undocumented who were on legitimate payrolls have been terminated because of improper or non-matching I-9s.

“So now, we have all these people in various industries working for cash. These jobs range from nannies to construction workers. They don’t have social security numbers. And, they are not paying payroll taxes. If hurt on the job, they wind up in our emergency rooms, with our citizens picking up the cost.

“When a person does a job for a low wage and doesn’t pay taxes, it has two effects. One, it lowers wages in that industry. It condemns those who work in those industries – if they want a job – to accept the lowest possible wage. Second, it condemns our young men and women graduating from high school, who are not going to college, to settle for these same low wages, if they want to work. If we cannot provide work for young people at a decent wage who don’t go to college, they are more likely to get in trouble. Young people would like to work, if jobs paid enough, especially if they were trained and treated fairly on the job.

“If this sounds like we’re blaming the undocumented worker, we’re not. We’re blaming the employers who are taking advantage of the workers. At present, an employer can legally subcontract work out and, thereby, get off the hook. We want to identify and document everyone here and have employers pay taxes on workers.”

Do the state’s costs associated with undocumented workers exceed the economic benefits they bring? The largest cost to Texans is in education given to undocumented children between the ages of 5-17, who attend public schools. In the 2004-’05 school year, the Texas Comptroller’s Office estimated there were 135,000 undocumented students attending Texas schools. According to funding formulas, the average cost of educating a student is $7,085 annually. Multiply cost times estimated number of undocumented students and the Comptroller’s Office came up with the cost of $957 million for the entire state.

Often, when one hears negative comments on immigration, one encounters the argument that the undocumented population is taking away all of our resources. So why, they ask, are we providing public education to those who are undocumented?

Public education issue
HISD trustee for District 8, Juliet Stipeche, knows a lot about public school education. She’s also an attorney in her professional life.

“In the 1970s, Texas did withhold funds to school districts that enrolled undocumented children,” said Stipeche. “Other districts actually charged tuition to undocumented children. Then came a Supreme Court ruling in 1982.”

In Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas law violated the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment. As a result of Plyler v. Doe, states may not deny access to public education to immigrant children residing within their boundaries, regardless of their legal status.

“By not allowing children access to education, grades K-12, the Supreme Court said this would create an underclass population that would actually cost us more in terms of welfare, crime and other issues that would be problematic,” said Stipeche. “Basically, the Supreme Court was asking: Do you want to create an underclass of individuals that don’t have access to education or do you want to provide quality education to all children? The ruling is still the law today and the reason why school districts like HISD do not question the status of any child who is a resident within HISD boundaries.

“This is a question of where do we want to go as a country. What kinds of opportunities do we want to offer children who are living here among us? The Supreme Court also said children are protected against discrimination and no substantive state interest could be demonstrated that would justify discrimination against undocumented children.”

Thus, in terms of education, we have a system that makes it the law to educate every child, regardless of his/her status, from K-12.

Perhaps, Texas Gov. Rick Perry put it most succinctly: “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society. I think that’s what Texans wanted to do. Out of 181 members of the Texas legislature, when this issue came up, only four dissenting votes. This was a state issue. Texans voted on it. And, I still support it greatly.”

Parental involvement
Stipeche agrees that a sensible immigration reform policy of identifying, documenting and taxing undocumented workers will bring in more money for HISD. But, more important, she said, it would allow the parents to participate fully in the educational process.

“That means allowing parents to feel safe enough to come to school and participate in anything from classroom activities to field trips,” said Stipeche. “Right now, children live in fear that their parents may be deported and their families torn apart. That kind of fear engenders a situation where there is a lack of parental involvement. Parental engagement is important and should be in place regardless of the residency status of the parent. The child is allowed to go on campus. The parent should feel comfortable there, as well. There’s a real issue with trying to engage and involve Latino parents. I see the immigrant-status issue playing a large part in this.

“We also need to see the value of education in the long term. What are the consequences of dropping out before completing high school? You are four times more likely to be jobless compared to a college graduate. You’re 47 times more likely than a college grad to be jailed. And, if you have less than a high school diploma, your mortality rate jumps to three times more than a person with a high school diploma. About 75 percent of the inmates in prison are high school dropouts. Three times as many Latino and African-American folks are in prison than in college. With just a 5 percent increase in the number of male high school graduates, there would be an annual crime-related savings of more than $5 billion per year. So, the cost in terms of incarceration and not having productive citizens to tax is enormous. You have to invest in education.”

Mike Nichols expects a large public turnout to hear the presenters. He hopes attendees consider the consequences of Texas’ failure to implement effective policies for the state’s undocumented workers.

“Business, civic and political leaders are concerned that this failure to move forward on immigration reform is having a lasting and tremendous cost on Texas,” said Nichols. “I hope three things will come from this summit. One is the actual calculation of the cost savings of implementing immigration reform. Second, some alternatives that Texas can move forward on, even without federal legislation. And third, reframe the immigration reform discussion and move beyond the current gridlock that exists both in the U.S. Congress and the citizens of our state. The gridlock and failure to develop constructive and creative reform has only made the situation worse and has polarized the debate.

“I grew up in Birmingham, Ala. I’m cognizant of the failures in the Jewish community and the overall community because they failed to see the significance of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In my opinion, the immigration reform discussion of this decade will be viewed, in hindsight, as significant as the civil rights movement. I don’t want to be embarrassed as my parents’ generation was related to the civil rights movement. We need to develop appropriate solutions as soon as possible.”

An RSVP is required to attend the immigration summit on Jan. 10. Phone 713-439-1202 or email kahnm@ajc.org. There is no charge.