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Can we really afford to scare off immigrants?

Last week the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, Aponte v. Martino, that raises a disturbing question about how immigrants are treated in Pittsburgh. And the question is this:

Whatever happened to the good old days, when Pittsburghers knew how to make a buck off of immigrant laborers?

The lawsuit stems from an October 2010 incident involving 10 Mexican landscapers -- all here legally, on guest-worker visas -- who wanted to do a little shopping at the Pittsburgh Mills shopping mall. According to the suit, lead plaintiff Arturo Ocampo Aponte went to J.C. Penney's, trying to return a pair of pants. One of Aponte's peers, meanwhile, purchased footwear using a $100 bill. 

But the men claim that they -- and eight of their friends -- were detained by store personnel and Frazer Township police, who accused them of using counterfeit bills. The landscapers allege they were detained for up to four hours before being released: They were never charged.  The complaint accuses store personnel and police of false imprisonment, discrimination and other civil-rights violations.

Of course, these are only allegations (officials have declined to comment). And they're much less serious than, say, allegations of outright slavery that have been made against Florida tomato-growers in recent years. Even if the ACLU's accusations are true, fear of being cheated by immigrants might have led store employees to cheat themselves. The lawsuit contends the landscapers have "been afraid to shop at J.C. Penney and have desisted from going on the premises" ever since.

There's a lesson here, about how immigrants may contribute more to our prosperity than we recognize. It's a lesson you wish could be learned be politicians like state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), who promote "English only" bills and other anti-immigrant initiatives. So much of their rhetoric concerns the costs of immigration -- the jobs that are supposedly being taken away from American workers, the services immigrants supposedly demand. We're much slower to see the cost of driving them away. 

But down in Alabama, a draconian anti-immigration law, HB 56, has already driven farmworkers -- documented and undocumented alike -- from the fields. Farmers are now suddenly short-staffed and panicking: Oddly enough, unemployed natives in the cities and suburbs aren't trekking out to the countryside just so they can do back-breaking work for little pay. 

"This isn't the kind of job most of us want to do," one farmer candidly told NPR. "But somebody's got to do it if we're going to keep eating for the price that we are eating at."

Now there's a thought you don't hear from immigrant-bashers: the possibility that American workers might be worse off without immigrants.

And right-wing rhetoric aside, even illegal immigrants pay taxes.  The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that in Pennsylvania, undocumented workers generated nearly $135 million in tax revenue last year -- $93 million of it in sales tax alone. For every $100 that gets spent on taxable goods in Pennsylvania, $6 goes to the state, where it pays for essential services, like keeping Daryl Metcalfe off the street. 

We're quick to decry any concession or government program -- press 1 for English! Drivers' manuals in Spanish! -- that eases the lives of immigrants. But we turn a blind eye to all the ways in which they underwrite our own standard of living. 

Of course, not all immigrants are admirable human beings; back in 2010, illegal immigrants from Mexico actually were circulating counterfeit $100 bills locally. And there will always be native-born absolutists who insist that since crossing borders is a crime, even the most upstanding worker is a criminal by definition.   

But if we insist on punishing immigrants, we ought to think about how much we're willing to punish ourselves in the process. Their presence offers intangible benefits, too -- some of which we've tried to suggest elsewhere in this issue. Considering that Latinos make up less than 3 percent of Pittsburgh's population, they've had a huge effect on local commerce and culture -- from the art in our galleries to the food in our restaurants.

Pittsburgh was built by immigrants, we like to tell ourselves. But since then, our population has dwindled. The mills are gone, and only the names of shopping malls remain. It's hard to imagine we'd want the immigrants to disappear as well.

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