The economic impact of immigration, as well as its influence on education, health and justice, was the focus of a League of Women Voters-sponsored forum on Nov. 15.
A panel representing several sides of the issue voiced concerns and personal experiences and answered written questions from the audience. About 60 people attended the forum, held at Calvary Baptist Church in West Asheville.
“While there’s a consensus that there’s a problem with immigration, especially undocumented immigration, there’s no consensus when it comes what to do about it,” said the event’s keynote speaker, Jim Lenberg, who is chair of the local World Affairs Council and a retired Mars Hill College professor.
Whatever the arguments in favor of restricting immigration—be they strengthening national security, relieving the strain on social services or heading off job losses by native-born workers—Lenberg also noted that studies have shown immigrants to be an economic boon.
A study by the University of California, Berkeley, showed no significant wage disparity between areas with high immigrant populations and those with low ones. “The taxes immigrants pay just about equals the amount they receive in services,” Lenberg said, adding that according to the study, immigrants add billions of dollars to the national economy. Lenberg did later add that immigrant labor has statistically proven to be an economic challenge for two groups: low-income African-Americans and poor rural whites.
Meanwhile, panelist Eric Gorny, a tile-setter and Republican activist, said that he knows firsthand that illegal immigration is harming his job prospects.
“There’s a lot of this on almost every job site,” Gorny said. “I have to pay taxes, workman’s comp, liability insurance. I’ve lost a lot of jobs because I’ve been underbid by contractors using illegal aliens.”
Gorny did allow that he believes immigrants are “great workers.” “They work hard—and it’s good work,” he said, but insisted that “we have to stop illegal immigration—and we have to start with the border.”
Immigration also poses challenges to the public-health system, according to Steve Swearingen, medical director for the Buncombe County Health Center, but he suggested that it’s in the public’s best interest to keep services open to all, including undocumented immigrants.
“To put them in a position where they hesitate to get treatment for infectious diseases is bad policy,” Swearingen said, adding that health-care services for undocumented immigrants cost less than half, on average, of what it takes to treat the average uninsured citizen.
Another panelist, local business owner Rosario Villarreal, immigrated legally to Asheville from Mexico. Villarreal said that undocumented immigrants often pay taxes and work hard, but get little back from society and are often stereotyped and viewed with hostility. In addition, employers will often abuse or refuse to pay them, since they have no legal status.
“They are not here on welfare—they pay taxes, they rent apartments,” she said. “They’re here to work and work hard.”
Villarreal also noted the stark wage differences between the two countries, explaining that with a college degree in Mexico, she could make about only as much as a cook makes here.
Bert Lemke, an immigrant who is now a U.S. citizen, is general manager of Van Wingerden, Inc., in Henderson County. He said that illegal immigration is a problem, but one that needs to be solved by reforming the immigration system, noting how hard it can be to immigrate legally.
“You have to start the procedure outside the country,” he said. “It can take years‚ and it’s almost impossible to do unless you have significant resources.”
Villareal went farther, insisting that the immigration system “really is not working for Anglos or Latinos. It’s not working for anybody.”