Immigration advocates claim that the income from work illegals do contributes more to the economy than what their cost is in medical care, education, welfare and other social services. Critics argue just the opposite -- that the illegals take out of the economy more than they put into it.
To resolve this issue don't go to the pundits and academics in their ivory towers, but to the states and localities that must deal with it day in and day out. For instance, you'd sure have a tough time convincing Aiken County officials that illegal immigrants are more of an asset than a liability.
"Every time you have an illegal giving birth in an emergency room, guess who's paying for it?" asks County Councilman Gary Bunker.
The burden got so heavy that a year ago the County Council passed legislation sponsored by Bunker that sought to discourage the flood of illegals coming into the area. The measure declared English the county's official language and banned discretionary funding to agencies that were helping illegals.
The ordinance addressed the thorny employment issue the best it could by compelling businesses that contract with the local government to swear they don't hire illegals. If caught doing so, the firms are put on a "no hire" list for three years.
So far, no company or agency doing business with the county has been found in violation, which is good news as far as it goes, but the law does not address companies that don't do business with the county. To bring them under the umbrella of the law would require a business-license ordinance which the county doesn't have.
However, the state's new anti-illegal immigration law that begins to go into effect in January should be a help next year. A key feature of the law is the so-called "E-verify" system requiring employers to verify the legal status of new hires through Homeland Security or a South Carolina driver's license.
When Gov. Mark Sanford signed the legislation in June, it was described as perhaps the toughest anti-illegal bill in the nation -- even tougher that the stiff measures that Colorado, Arizona and Oklahoma passed. Legal challenges have in some cases stalled or slowed enforcement in those states, but for the most part they've been declared a success. The illegal population has declined or at least hasn't gone up.
The problem is, it's a whole bucket of wrong for states and local jurisdictions to be dealing with this issue at all. Enforcing the law against illegal immigration is a federal responsibility. And although the Bush administration has stepped up enforcement along some border areas, the feds still have a long way to go to get the borders under control.
Sadly, it looks like states and localities will have to continue grappling with the illegal immigration problem on an ad hoc basis for quite awhile. The issue so far has not been a priority of the presidential campaign.
John McCain, an early advocate of "comprehensive" immigration reform, a euphemism for amnesty, has gotten the message there can be no reform until the existing law requiring secure borders is fully implemented. The same cannot be said for Barack Obama, who also has been for "comprehensive" reform, but now pettifogs the issue whenever it is brought up.
We commend South Carolina and Aiken County for clamping down on the illegals, but their effort -- and others like it across the nation -- should stand as a rebuke to Washington for not doing its job.