News: CJ Exclusives

JLF: Immigration Numbers Unclear

Uncertain numbers make if difficult to gauge extent of problem

RALEIGH – Dubious numbers hamper the debate over illegal immigration in North Carolina, according to a new Spotlight report from the John Locke Foundation.

“As the debate about immigration continues, all involved need to be aware of the limitations of existing statistics,” said Joseph Coletti, JLF Fiscal Policy Analyst and the study’s author.

Part of the problem is the unclear link between the number of illegal immigrants and the total number of Hispanics in the state, Coletti said. “Hispanics are about 6 percent of the state’s population and growing,” he said. “Illegal immigrants make up an estimated 45 percent of the state’s Hispanic population, but 76 percent of recent entrants.”

Confusion between illegal immigrants and the Hispanic population as a larger group can cause problems, Coletti said. “Proponents and opponents of immigration reform often conflate the broader Hispanic population with immigrants and quickly transform the debate into an emotionally charged one about ethnicity and language, rather than an objective one about the rule of law or costs and benefits.”

North Carolina’s Hispanic population ranged from 500,000 to 600,000 in 2004, Coletti said. About 45 percent of them live in the state illegally. That’s between 230,000 and 316,000 people.

Hispanics make up the largest segment of the total number of illegal immigrants in North Carolina, Coletti said. “The total illegal population in the state may be 287,000 or 395,000 or as high as 500,000,” he said. “The number depends on your source.”

Most new immigrants are illegal, Coletti said, but it’s still not possible to substitute “Hispanic” for “illegal.” “Legal immigrants make up only one-fourth of New Hispanic entrants to North Carolina, but they are still a majority of all Hispanics in the state.”

Given the uncertain numbers, it’s hard to gauge the impact of illegal immigration on the North Carolina economy, Coletti said. He cites a recent study from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. The study “assembled the most comprehensive estimate” of economic impact from the Hispanic community, but it did not factor out the impact of illegal immigration.

“They wisely chose to avoid as much as possible the question of illegal immigration,” Coletti said. “One good reason for this is the difficulty in getting a good estimate for many transactions, besides those covered by Medicaid.”

The Kenan Institute found that Hispanics contribute $9.2 billion annually to the North Carolina economy, Coletti said. “On the other hand, Hispanics cost all levels of government more in services than they provide in tax dollars, even though 75 percent pay taxes.”

More accurate numbers would improve the debate over illegal immigration in North Carolina, Coletti said. “It’s hard to do more than guess the solutions to a problem, when we’re guessing about the extent of the problem.”