Will playing up prejudice backfire on Pawlenty?

You know it's getting close to election time for Governor Tim Pawlenty when he starts bashing immigrants. Eighteen months ago, when Pawlenty's political priority was burnishing his national credentials for a potential run for the White House, he was full of smiles and praise for Minnesota's immigrant population as he hosted a visit by Mexican President Vicente Fox. But now that he will have to stand for reelection in little more than ten months, the Governor has once again pulled out the Prejudice Card for that time-honored political game of divide and conquer.

A few weeks ago, a report commissioned by Pawlenty, titled "The Impact of Illegal Immigration on Minnesota," stirred controversy by claiming that illegal immigrants cost the state between $175-$188 million every year. The report immediately brought to mind the controversial television ad that Pawlenty ran at the height of his campaign for governor three years ago, urging that a "status check" be placed on the driver's licenses of foreign nationals who legally reside in this country.

But even something as naked as an appeal to prejudice can be handled too ham-handedly. Slapping a huge pricetag on those troublesome brown-skinned people who don't talk like us is one thing; but not even bothering to calculate the revenue that goes into state coffers from illegal immigrants exposed the Governor's hand a little too baldly.

Deep within the bowels of the report, under "challenges," it reads, "there are approximately 8,000 illegal immigrants who file state income taxes--using an ITIN number--to replenish state resources. Illegal immigrants also pay taxes by employer withholdings. Because they do not file tax returns, these funds are kept by the state and federal government, resulting in 'stranded withholdings.' Although some argue that the value of these withholdings is significant, the exact dollar amount attributable to illegal immigrants is unknown." But they are no more "unknown" than the cost of educating, medicating, and incarcerating illegal immigrants, and the report had no trouble coming up with numbers there. Indeed, in some cases, the estimated costs were wildly inflated. One example is in education, where the report included the cost of schooling children born in this country to illegal immigrants, which makes those children fully as much U.S. citizens as the offspring of Tim and Mary Pawlenty.

Put simply, the estimated dollars illegal immigrants are costing Minnesota are counted and the estimated dollars illegal immigrants are contributing to Minnesota are entirely ignored in the report. When asked by the Pioneer Press why they didn't even consider the plus-side of the immigration ledger, Commissioner Dana Badgerow of the Minnesota Department of Administration responded that Pawlenty didn't ask for it. "Obviously there is a school of thought that there is an economic advantage to having these folks in our workforce," Badgerow told the PiPress. "We didn't look at that side of it."

The Star Tribune sensibly sought out experts to provide that gaping piece of the economic puzzle the report left out, and came up with a figure of $300 million per year, which of course exceeds the estimated cost in Pawlenty's report. This would be in keeping with the 2005 Economic Report of the President, submitted to the U.S. Congress ten months ago, which states, "A comprehensive accounting of the benefits and costs of immigration shows that the benefits of immigration exceed the costs."

The local dailies have also reported that state demographer Tom Gillaspy was not "in the loop" when the Governor's report was estimating that 80,000-85,000 illegal immigrants currently lived in Minnesota. Gillaspy has subsequently told both the Strib and the PiPress that he thought that the estimate was too high. The person who did make the estimate used in the report, Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, told the PiPress last week that, "in the grand scheme of things, the 50,000 and the 80,000 are roughly the same." Maybe to Passel it is a "rough" estimate, but for Pawlenty's minions crudely toting up the cost of services, the number used was obviously significant.

One sign that Pawlenty may have overplayed his hand occurred in Wednesday morning's Strib, with an op-ed piece by the Governor's communications director, Brian McClung, entitled, "Article attacked messenger." Claiming that the Strib supported illegal immigration, McClung fumed that the paper had engaged in a "classic attack: If you don't like the message, attack the messenger." He then launched into a raft of figures showing "the recent explosive growth of illegals in our state." He concluded by criticizing the $300 million estimate of the annual contribution illegal immigrants make in Minnesota, saying that "the state's leading economists criticized that report for overstating the impact of illegal immigrants in Minnesota."

This begs an obvious question: If the state's leading economists know that $300 million is too high, they must have some idea of what number is about right. If Pawlenty wasn't just playing cheap and dirty politics with anti-immigrant prejudice, then why didn't he seek out and utilize that best estimate from his economists?

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