At both the federal and state levels, the policy and rhetorical battle on immigration is, in the words of one North Carolina member of Congress, reaching “critical mass” as it pits those who support strict enforcement of current laws against those who advocate sweeping immigration-law reform.

During the 1990s, North Carolina had the fastest growing Hispanic population of any state in the nation, growing from 76,726 in 1990 to 378,963 in 2000. That’s an increase of 393 percent. Four years later, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the Hispanic population at 517,617.

Illegal immigration, primarily from Mexico, is responsible for the majority of that growth. The Washington D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center has estimated that 300,000 people — roughly 65 percent of North Carolina’s Latino population — are illegal immigrants, based on the Census Bureau’s latest population estimates. No major Hispanic advocacy group has disputed Pew’s calculations.

The rapid influx of illegal immigrants has created tensions in North Carolina. Earlier this year a heated public reaction against General Assembly legislation that would have allowed some illegal immigrant students to pay in-state tuition at the state’s 16 universities played itself out on talk radio and letters to the editor pages in the state’s major newspapers. Additionally, State Sen. Hugh Webster (R-Alamance) introduced a bill that would have denied state services to illegal aliens.

Both measures died, but the debate certainly hasn’t. High-profile arrests of illegal immigrant workers at Piedmont International Airport, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Cree Incorporated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents kept the volatile issue in the news.

On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick from North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District plans to introduce legislation to tighten U.S–Mexico border security. Last month she authored a bill that would withhold federal highway funds to North Carolina and five other states that accept federal taxpayer ID numbers as proof of residence when issuing driver’s licenses.

In September, she introduced bills that would make a DWI conviction a deportable offense for illegal aliens, and increase the fine for knowingly hiring undocumented workers from the current $250 to $10,000 per alien. Critics say Myrick’s gubernatorial ambitions have spurred her recent legislative activity, but she says it is because she feels a “critical mass” to do something has finally been reached among members of Congress.

As the political battle roils around them, illegal immigrants continue to flock to North Carolina for the same reason thousands of legal U.S. residents do: employment opportunities. Jobs in construction, agriculture, textile, manufacturing, maintenance, services, and hospitality are the attraction, according to Dr. Nolo Martinez of the Center for New North Carolinians at UNC-Greensboro. Many of those economic sectors have become dependent on immigrant labor, he said. Most notable is agriculture, the largest sector, which is responsible for $62.6 billion of annual economic activity. Others agree with his assessment.

“If it weren’t for immigrants, there wouldn’t be an agriculture industry in North Carolina,” said Paula Gupton Page, legislative director for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, “because picking tobacco is hot and hard, and harvesting Christmas trees is cold and hard. Farmers can’t hire enough local people to do the work anymore.” Paying the higher wages that would entice American citizens back into the fields doesn’t make economic sense, she added, given low farm commodity prices.

The willingness of illegal immigrants to perform low-skill, labor-intensive jobs has created an economic dilemma. The low-wage jobs that illegal immigrants fill yield equally low taxes to state and local governments. The majority of taxes paid by illegals accrue to the federal government, while many public services they consume, such as education, are mostly funded by state and local government.

Comparing the costs of services provided to illegal immigrants with the benefits the workers provide is difficult. A labyrinth of regulations prohibits an effective compilation of demographic and economic data.

Though not providing evidence on the cost vs. benefit debate, the Pew Hispanic Center’s Rakesh Kochhar, Roberto Suro and Sonya Tafoya investigated the North Carolina immigrant in their study, “The New Latino South: The Context and Consequences of Rapid Population Growth,” published this summer and available at

The research team examined North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee because of their pronounced Hispanic population increases in the 1990s.

Not surprisingly, most illegal immigrants are poor by American standards. The average annual earnings for an illegal Hispanic worker in these six southern states was $16,000 in 2000, compared to the national Latino average of $18,000. Thus, the poverty rate for illegal Hispanics in these states rose to 25.5 percent in 2000 from 19.7 percent in 1990.

That represented a 30 percent increase compared with a 4 percent drop for Hispanics nationwide. A higher number of new Southern Hispanic residents rent their housing — 65 percent vs. 53 percent nationally. What’s more, the number of people in Southern Hispanic households was significantly higher (3.8) than their white (2.4) and black (2.7) counterparts.

Pew determined that Hispanic immigrants coming to these six states are young, with a median age of 27 years, and predominately male (63 percent). Immigrants are also likely to be unmarried (51 percent). They have low education levels; only 38 percent of those in the six southern states arrive with a high school diploma. The Pew researchers also determined 57 percent of new immigrants do not speak English well, or at all.

Conclusions drawn from the Pew profile may differ, but one impact is undeniable. The explosive population growth and limited English proficiency skills of the illegal immigrant are seriously challenging North Carolina’s public schools. North Carolina is required to educate illegal immigrant children as a result of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that each state has the responsibility of educating every resident child regardless of legal status. The ruling has some school districts busting at the seams.

Latino school enrollment in North Carolina increased 600 percent between the 1993 and 2003 school years, according to the Department of Public Instruction. In 2003-04, the most recent year for which data are available, Hispanic students numbered 88,335 out of 1,342,806 K-12 students in the state.

Using Pew’s estimates that 65 percent of those children are undocumented, the illegal student count would number roughly 57,400. The John Locke Foundation, publisher of Carolina Journal, calculates that it costs taxpayers, on average, $8,500 per year to fund the operational and capital costs of educating a child in North Carolina. That translates into an expenditure of approximately $487 million annually to educate illegal immigrant children, a cost that will continue to grow as the population increases.

The question North Carolinians are debating is fundamental: Is it worth it?

According to those who cite the Latino community’s growing economic might, the answer is yes. The Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia pegs the buying power of Hispanics in North Carolina at $8.2 billion in 2005. The Selig Center predicts that number will grow to $13.3 billion by 2010, one of the fastest growth rates in the nation.

In his book Smart Economics, Dr. Michael Walden, Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University, points out immigrants, in effect, increase the number of workers paying Social Security and Medicare taxes since they pay those taxes while not receiving the benefits themselves.

Earlier this year, the Social Security Administration revealed it had collected $329 billion in its “earnings suspense file” over the past 20 years, most of it from illegal immigrants who used phony Social Security numbers. Conservative estimates are that illegal immigrants pay a minimum of $7 billion per year into Social Security and Medicare.

Some feel that these benefits don’t outweigh the costs, however. One is Debra Conrad-Schrader, vice chair of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. To her, the economic benefits of illegal immigration don’t begin to outweigh the $400 million in bonds her county school board is requesting to build schools and finance renovations over the next 10 years, mostly due to the influx of extra students, many of them Hispanic.

The Hispanic population in Forsyth County has increased 55 percent during the past four years. Hispanics now comprise 14 percent of the district’s 50,477 students. The influx of illegal immigrants in Forsyth has made Conrad-Schrader a supporter of a bill by U.S. Rep. Myrick to curb illegal immigration. “We’ve seen a large influx of undocumented workers in our towns and it’s definitely put a strain on all aspects of resources that cannot be addressed locally,” she said.

Conrad-Schrader is about to get her wish. Leaders in the U.S. House promise action this year on bills that strengthen enforcement of current immigration law. The U.S. Senate will take up two very different immigration bills early next year.

The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 (S. 1033/H.R. 2330) is sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ). The Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Act of 2005 (S. 1438) was introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ).

Both bills would tighten border security in order in an effort to stop the flow of illegals into the U.S. The Kennedy-McCain plan relies heavily on technology and diplomacy while the Cornyn-Kyl bill relies on manpower.

The Cornyn-Kyl bill would add 10,000 new Border Patrol agents, authorize 10,000 agents to investigate employers who hire undocumented workers, and add 10,000 new beds to detain illegal aliens.

However, it is the handling of the estimated 11 million illegal aliens already living in the United States that is expected to generate the most fireworks. The Kennedy-McCain bill would allow illegals to stay in the U.S. on the stipulation that they pay a $2,000 fine and submit to a security and medical background investigation. They would then be issued a new temporary work visa that can be renewed for up to six years. At the end of that period, the alien must return home or be in the pipeline for a “green card” that would grant permanent status.

Under the Cornyn-Kyl legislation, illegal aliens would be forced to return to their country of origin and re-enter the U.S. through existing legal channels. Illegal immigrants will have up to five years to depart the U.S. Those who leave quickly will be eligible to return through a new temporary worker program. Unlike the Kennedy-McCain bill, it does not provide an avenue for permanent legal status.

Lindsay Taylor of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s office says Dole has not decided which legislation to support, but that border security is Dole’s top priority. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Cornyn-Kyl legislation. Myrick said she hasn’t yet decided on either bill but she characterized the Kennedy-McCain bill as an “amnesty” bill.

Ron Woodard, founder of the immigration-reform group NC Listen, believes enforcement of existing laws, including employer sanctions, must be tried before any guest-worker plans are established.

His position is similar to that advocated by Mark Krikorian of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies. The group says the solution to illegal immigration is a combinations of consistent, across-the-board enforcement of existing law, illegal immigrant deterrence, and increased deportation.

Often not reported is that immigration has become a hotly debated issue within the Hispanic community itself. Support for illegal immigrants among U.S.-born Latinos diminishes with each new generation. When Pew asked Latinos whether undocumented workers help the economy, 46 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics said no.

In its survey of Hispanic attitudes toward immigration, Pew found that the younger the U.S. born Latino respondent, the less support expressed for illegal immigrants. And now, some Mexican-Americans are participating in citizen border patrols along the California-Mexico border.

Latino advocacy leaders say they want a resolution because the issue of illegal immigration threatens to take the focus off other Hispanic concerns. For the first time in its history, the nation’s leading Hispanic advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza, is supporting immigration-reform legislation, specifically the Kennedy-McCain bill.

Rick Martinez is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.