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WEST VALLEY CITY -- Economists agree deporting all 12 million illegal immigrants would affect the U.S. economy, which is still struggling out of recession. But is that because illegal immigration benefits our economy or because illegal immigration hurts our economy? The answer to both is yes.
Immigrant population brings business, diversity to Utah
Shoppers mingle as live music plays inside the Latino Mall in West Valley City. The ethnic markets capture the entrepreneurial spirit of many immigrants.
Clearly, with high numbers of ... ethnic populations, we are going to have businesses that cater to them, and it's something that we welcome and that we really celebrate.
–Aaron Crim, West Valley City
"My American dream is full now. I have my home. I have my business. Thanks, America," Utahn Carlos Vargas says.
West Valley has become the most diverse city in our state -- 30 percent of its population is Hispanic.
"Clearly, with high numbers of, not only Hispanic individuals, but other ethnic populations, we are going to have businesses that cater to them, and it's something that we welcome and that we really celebrate," says Aaron Crim, spokesman for West Valley City.
The city celebrates not only the diversity, but the revenue.
"Each one of those businesses, I would say they vary between $100,000 to $200,000, up to $1 million or $2 million in revenue," says Juan Ruiz, president of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce in Utah.
These ethnic communities are a draw for many minorities new to Utah, including those who are not legal citizens.
"It's a topic that is difficult to get a grasp on," Crim says. "We've wondered about the impacts, but there's never been anything official studied on it."
What studies show
In fact, even though both sides of this issue throw out lots of numbers, no comprehensive study has ever been done on illegal immigration in Utah.
"You are talking about a population that is not exactly anxious to be counted," says Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah.
Perlich says cost benefit studies are notorious for taking extraordinarily complex questions about illegal immigration and then boiling them down to a one-number answer. However, she says the research is very definitive about the overall economic impact of illegal immigration at the federal level.
"Over the long run, immigrants add to the productive capacity of the nation, to productivity," Perlich says. "Well, when you have increasing productivity, you have increasing wages; and standard of living goes up as well."
Illegal immigrants also pay taxes. They own homes, they rent and they spend. But the costs of health and social services come out of state and local budgets.
"In areas where there are high concentrations of undocumented immigrants, these costs can be very high, relative to the benefits or the revenues they are generating," Perlich says.
A drain or gain for the economy?
According to an exclusive Dan Jones poll for KSL News, 77 percent of Utahns believe illegal immigration harms Utah businesses and our economy; 81 percent believe it drains public resources like medical care and education.
In the state of Utah we are having a tough time paying for education. We can't even keep up with internal growth, and so there are huge costs right now for the children of illegal immigrants that are here in our state.
–Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.
"Right now, for instance, in the state of Utah we are having a tough time paying for education. We can't even keep up with internal growth, and so there are huge costs right now for the children of illegal immigrants that are here in our state," says state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.
Education is the largest single expenditure in state and local budgets. A study by the Congressional Budget Office says the costs for educating students who did not speak English fluently were 20 to 40 percent higher than the costs for native-born students.
"But it's a small fraction of our education budget going to this undocumented population, because there are not that many undocumented kids," Perlich says.
In fact, only one in seven of the children enrolled in Utah schools is Hispanic, and those numbers say nothing about legal status.
As for medical care, Utah hospitals do not track patients' immigration status so it's impossible to get a firm estimate of the costs.
"Illegal immigrants are not flooding our hospitals. They are not flooding our clinics," says Chris Nelson, spokesman for University Hospital.
Nelson also says there is nothing to suggest that illegal immigrants are less likely to pay their medical bills.
"Again, the country of origin, in our view, doesn't appear to play a big part in that," Nelson says.
A large piece of the economic puzzle that is even harder to quantify is the effect an illegal immigrant can have over a lifetime. How much are new ideas, different language and cultural traditions worth in a globalizing economy?
"People tend to see history through the metric of just their own life experiences," Perlich says. "Immigrants have forever been the source of growth. We are a nation of immigrants. We are unique among nations that way."
Unique that in every generation another people from another place has come for the same dream.
Many Utahns believe that illegal immigrants send most of their earnings to family members in their home countries. A national Pew Institute study shows that the majority send between $100 and $300 several times a year, which is 10 to 15 percent of their incomes.