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Immigration sparks fears of 'new Appalachia'

Jon Kamman
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 08, 2001

The furious pace of foreign immigration is raising fears that Arizona is becoming a "new Appalachia" - a pocket of poverty in a nation of plenty.

While one research group warns that its latest data show immigration's effects on the state are "pretty stark" in terms of a drain on taxes, education, health care and welfare, defenders of immigration dismiss the image as exaggerated and unfair to the vital role immigrants play in the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, an émigré Arizona State University professor who sees validity in both positions expressed concern that the economic straits of the growing underclass run counter to the American way.

Wherever the balanced perspective lies, the outlook for the state contains more perils than were evident 10 years ago.

"Arizona is approaching Mississippi in the percentage of people living at or near poverty, and it's the direct result of a high level of immigration," said Steven A. Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

The Washington, D.C.-based think tank estimated last week that Arizona is home to about 630,000 immigrants, both legal and illegal.

The total exploded 126 percent since 1990, more than three times the rate of the state's 40 percent overall growth. Today, one of eight Arizona residents is foreign born, compared with one in 13 a decade ago.

Nationally, the ratio is about one in 10. For both the state and nation, the proportion of foreign-born is the highest since the 1930s.

About one-fourth of the Arizona immigrants are in this country illegally, Camarota said.

He emphasized that although his organization advocates stricter controls on immigration, it believes the nation can and should absorb more immigrants than any other country.

But Arizona's job supply and proximity to Mexico have put it in the cellar in terms of immigrants' wherewithal, he said.

"Arizona is very striking in its levels of poverty, lack of health care insurance and its proportion of welfare recipients among immigrants," Camarota said.

"In every case, the percentages for immigrants are at least twice the rate for native-born residents."

"You find this to a smaller extent across parts of Southern California and west Texas," Camarota said, "but the overall question is, 'Is Arizona becoming the new Appalachia?' "

Roberto Martinez, director of the 18-year-old U.S.-Mexico Border Program, said, "This comes up every few years."

"What it fails to address is that all immigrants started this way," said Martinez, a San Diego-based advocated for immigrant rights and humane treatment. "The Europeans didn't come with riches; they had to work their way up."

Martinez said cheap labor supplied by immigrants is one reason for record economic expansion in the past 10 years. And California's $40 billion agricultural economy would die without immigrant labor, he said.

"People shouldn't look at it (immigration) as a negative, but a positive," Martinez said. "Keep in mind that they pay taxes; they pay their way."

Immigrants work hard and perform many of the jobs shunned by native-born Americans, experts acknowledge, but recent studies have questioned whether the benefits outweigh the costs, Camarota said.

Schools especially feel the effects. Nearly one-fourth of Arizona's schoolchildren today are from immigrant families, and high birth rates among immigrants will swell classrooms even more. Thirty percent of the state's children under age 5 were born of immigrants, he said.

According to a 1995 state population projection, more than 500,000 immigrants will settle in the state in the next 25 years, a figure that may be understated, considering the escalated rate of immigration in the past decade.

Although illegal immigrants don't qualify for welfare, 20 percent of legal immigrants receive some form of public assistance, according to the center. That's double the rate of Arizonans who are U.S. natives.

Josefina Figueira-McDonough, a native of Portugal who holds a dual professorship in justice studies and social work at ASU, lamented that immigrants often don't receive fair treatment in return for their contributions.

"To the extent that state policies don't reach out to this population, they are extremely deprived," she said.

"If people work and pay taxes, they should have the services," she said.

Many minorities, as well as immigrants, "have a lot of trouble moving up," she said.

"The minimum wage won't support a family, and many women have to take care of children and get a job. Some are living in shacks. It's a punitive approach to poverty. In ethical terms, it's cruel, just plain cruel."

Immigrants come for jobs, and their cheap labor widens the gap between what Camarota calls "native haves" and "immigrant have-nots."

"The underclass is growing and won't go away," Figueira-McDonough said. "The inequality is huge, and it goes against the American ideology."

Camarota said 64 percent of Arizona's immigrants are from Mexico, a nation of higher poverty and lower educational attainment than many other countries.

Figueira-McDonough said she sees some "double talk" in immigration policy.

"At the same time we tell foreigners we don't want them here, this country with huge power has never closed the borders.

"Policies go up and down. For a while, we made a big show of saying employers would be prosecuted for hiring illegals. That lasted a month, maybe."

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