Lax enforcement of federal immigration laws is driving much of the concern over immigration issues in Tennessee, according to a state Comptroller's report released Wednesday.
"The state is limited in its power to control immigration. The power to regulate immigration is exclusively federal," said the report, which also noted that federal law specifically limits state and local efforts to establish more stringent requirements regarding immigrants' employment and immigration law enforcement.
The report told Tennessee lawmakers to consider encouraging the federal government to take a "stronger role" in controlling and funding services for the estimated 100,000 to 150,000 illegal aliens in the state.
State lawmakers introduced a number of bills during 2006 and 2007 to limit illegal aliens' access to employment, as well as to public benefits and services.
Representatives of state trade associations interviewed by the Comptroller's Office of Research said most businesses want to follow federal laws to verify employees' immigration status, but added it is not easy to detect false documents. The report pointed to a 2005 Government Accountability Office finding that document and identity fraud "make it difficult for employers to comply" with verification.
The report stressed that economists say immigrant workers are beneficial to economic growth, and that illegal aliens are not taking jobs or significantly affecting native workers' wages.
As for expenses, the report found taxpayers mostly pay for illegal aliens at the state and local levels. For instance, federal law requires Tennessee schools to admit all students regardless of their immigration status. In addition, public schools must provide services to non-English language proficient students. All students can also qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and other school assistance programs based on family income.
But illegal aliens, said the report, are not eligible for most public benefits.
"The cost of public benefits provided to unauthorized aliens are primarily restricted to elementary and secondary education and emergency and public health care as required by federal law," said the report. "State and local governments have some increased costs from the incarceration of unauthorized aliens for criminal behavior ... (but illegal) aliens contribute to state and local revenues ... through sales taxes on goods purchased, property tax through payment of rent, as well as other user taxes such as those on gasoline. They are not able to access public services such as TennCare (the state's Medicaid program), housing, food stamps, welfare and lower cost higher education."
The report said only U.S. citizens who are Tennessee residents can get a state driver's license, and noted the law does not distinguish between illegal aliens and U.S. citizens who commit crimes in the state.
"After serving their sentences, the federal government may deport any foreign-born convicts, including authorized or unauthorized aliens," the report said. "Local law enforcement and corrections agencies have indicated frustration at the lack of response from the federal government in picking up criminal unauthorized aliens for possible deportation when eligible for release."