The dirty truth behind immigration and economic fear-mongering

No matter where you come down on the undocumented-students-at-community-college debate that has been dominating the print and broadcast media in the last week, one thing is certain: at present this tiny, tiny population – around 340 – is in no danger of being a burden on state or local finances. In addition, the fact that undocumented students must pay out of state tuition means that enrollment is not likely to spike upwards any time soon, if ever. Arguing that these students are living off the backs of North Carolina’s citizens and permanent residents is the kind of economic fear-mongering that gives economists of all stripes a bad name and only adds to the general cynicism some of the public holds with regard to what public institutions do with tax-payer dollars.

To argue, as the John W Pope Civitas Institute does in a recent home page post (http://www.jwpcivitasinstitute.org), that the let-them-learn policy with regard to undocumented students (surely a positive contribution to our community and economy in any event) will cost millions, is to play it very disingenuous and loose with the revenue and expenditure data. The so-called ‘fact sheet’ alludes to the fact that tuition costs cover 12.5% of community college operating expenses. True. But in-state students comprise over 95% of all students. As Martin Lancaster points out in his blockbuster statement released Tuesday 4th, out-of-state tuition charges more than cover the cost of out-of-state student education: “[T]hese students would more than pay the cost of their community college education.” (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/education/story/810475.html) In fact, out-of-state students, including undocumented students, actually subsidize in-state students.

The capital costs argument only makes sense if there is a massive, and I do mean of tsunami proportions, spike in enrollment of undocumented students to the point where new buildings are required. Considering that at present, undocumented students comprise less than 0.001% of all enrollment at community colleges and that out-of-state tuition costs plus fees and books come to over $10 000, there is no danger of that spike.

So what is all the fuss about? From a purely economic perspective, it actually makes sense to encourage undocumented student community college enrollment. The benefits of a more skilled workforce in this low unemployment and booming state are obvious. But the chuck-‘em-out crowd aren’t actually appealing to economic reason, are they? It’s an argument rooted in simply this: ‘They’, they being undocumented workers and students, are different from ‘us’. The argument over immigration is essentially a cultural war. Those North Carolinians who fight against immigration and who cloak their arguments in inflammatory and misleading economic rhetoric need to fess up to this fact.

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