By Megan Poinski

Immigrants – both legal and unauthorized – have made positive contributions to Maryland in terms of the economy and education, and the state needs to take a common-sense approach to future policy, according to a new report from a state commission on immigration.

The final report of the Commission to Study the Impact of Immigrants in Maryland, approved Wednesday after more than a year of meetings and discussion, states that immigrants significantly add to the state and recommends policies to work with immigrants, and not spend too much effort trying to enforce U.S. immigration law.

The state should also continue its efforts to provide high quality education to all young people, regardless of their immigration status, the report says.

“Given the complexities of these issues, and given the diverse parties on which they will impact, effective changes to the status quo will require honest and sincere discussion and compromise,” the report states. “The State of Maryland can facilitate this process through encouragement and cooperation with federal authorities, other state governments, and civil society to enact comprehensive immigration policy reform.”

Immigration advocates welcomed the report, while those fighting illegal immigration found it to be poorly done and insulting.

The commission was established by law to give the state a better understanding of immigrants. Commission members, who ranged from academics at the University of Maryland to lawmakers to community and immigration experts, spent the last year looking into different issues dealing with immigrants and immigration.

A more detailed report looking at specific Maryland economic data will be finished in the next couple weeks, said Jeffrey Werling, the staff director for the commission.

Maryland economy dependent on immigrants

According to the report, Maryland’s economy and economic growth is highly dependent on immigrants. Between 2000 and 2010, Maryland’s gross state product increased by 26%. More than half of that – 57% — is from immigrants. Some of these immigrants are highly educated and highly skilled, working in information technology, science and medical fields. Some of them are uneducated and work low-wage jobs.

“They were attracted here by the economic growth, and they’re adding to the economic growth,” Werling said.

The study finds that the education and job level of immigrants complements the state’s existing work force. But immigrants with low-level jobs have also made a significant impact on the economy, especially in the construction, hospitality, retail, transportation, farming and fishing sectors.

“Without the influx of foreign-born workers, expansion in these labor-intensive industries would have been choked off, increasing prices and discouraging growth across the economy,” the report states. “It is doubtful that without immigration, the state could have lured enough U.S.-born workers from slower growing parts of the country to fill these positions.”

Fiscally, the report states, immigrants do not cause a significant drain on state coffers.  Immigrants who earn higher incomes are able to supplement the costs for lower-wage or unemployed immigrants. The report said that the net fiscal balance for an immigrant was close to that of a citizen at the same income level. Drawing from a 2007 Congressional Budget Office analysis, the report says that over the long term, immigrants pay more in taxes than they use in government services.

The report recommends working with low-income immigrants instead of trying to eliminate them. Some of the things that could help these less skilled workers are job-training programs and access to affordable health care.

Also, the study stresses that immigrants who may be a fiscal burden to the system may, in time, contribute to it significantly. If a child is educated, he or she could eventually give back as a citizen and taxpayer, the study says.

Commission questions law enforcement

There are federal law enforcement programs that concentrate on detaining illegal immigrants. The report states that they are too harsh to be used in Maryland, and the statistics about immigrants and crime undermine the reasons you would use them.

Only Frederick County participates in a 287(g) program, which allows a full partnership in immigration enforcement between local law enforcement and the federal government. The report says that in Frederick County, 60% of all the immigration detainees are traffic offenders.

This and other law enforcement programs that seek to deport illegal immigrants cause immigrants to ”live under a cloud of uncertainty,” the report says. It recommends that the state should only help deport someone who has committed serious crimes, only allow detainees to give immigration-related interviews with a court order, implement data systems to find out the impact of law enforcement programs on immigrant communities, and not participate in 287(g) programs.

Advocates more education

The importance of high quality education for all is a theme of the report. It states that maintaining public education for all immigrants is important.

“Most of foreign-born young people in Maryland, regardless of status, will make up a substantial part of the productive, tax-paying workforce in a few short years,” the report states. “We will also depend on them to be informed voters and capable leaders so we can maintain strong and dynamic communities throughout the state of Maryland.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, abbreviated as FAIR, found that illegal immigrants cost Maryland state and local governments $1.2 billion in 2008. The report states that most of that cost deals with providing public education for immigrant children, many of whom could be born here as U.S. citizens. The non-educational spending pinpointed by FAIR is $200 million – about 0.5% of the state’s spending level.

The report states that support at home will help immigrant children become better educated. It recommends that the state develop standards to help immigrants learn English. Also, resources about schools should be made available to immigrant parents – as well as training for those parents to access and utilize them. Programs should be put in place to help immigrant parents deal with cultural and language differences in schools, and adopt curriculum dealing with immigrant experiences.

Also, the report endorses greater access to college for immigrants, regardless of their legal status, and recommends better recruiting of immigrant students and faculty.

Strong feelings about the report

People on both sides of the immigration issue had strong feelings about the report.

“Given the often overheated nature of the immigration debate, we are pleased that academic and other specialists have done the important work of bringing facts to bear on the debate regarding immigration,” said Kim Propeack, senior director of political action and communications of Casa de Maryland, a pro-immigrant group.

Brad Botwin, an illegal immigration opponent and founder of Help Save Maryland, said the report was “embarrassing.” He found the claims to be incorrect, arguing that foreign tourists who come to Maryland have a better positive impact on the state’s economy than illegal immigrants. He also could not believe that the report encourages law enforcement to ignore federal immigration law.

The whole report, Botwin said, is much too pro-immigrant.

“It sounds like this was from the Catholic Church, not a state commission,” he said. “This was not a balanced group here.”