Immigration bill would hurt state

The law of unintended consequences doesn't depend on the Kentucky General Assembly for its power, but count on it whirring into action if legislators fall for the demagoguery-du-jour and commit the state to cracking down on Kentucky workers who are in this country illegally.

Reporter Janet Patton laid out in a Sunday article the concerns of the state's Thoroughbred industry, which depends on foreign labor, both legal and illegal.

Hiring workers who aren't in this country legally is against the law and invites a host of abuses, mostly of the workers. But the reality is that tens of thousands of those workers are here, paying taxes, contributing to the economy.

We need a rational debate at the national level on how to address this in a way that is both humane and fiscally sound. The current proposal — that an illegal immigrant can be arrested for just being in Kentucky — is neither.

To consider how that impacts the horse industry, recall some of the comments in the story.

"These people are here and ready to pay taxes and do what the U.S. government wants them to do. ... Whatever it takes, they just want to do it to work," said trainer Dallas Stewart.

Easier said than done.

"The problem is, there's no way to get the guys who are here illegally legal in a straightforward, efficient way. The vehicle for fixing their status is not there," said Will Velie, an immigration attorney in Oklahoma who works with many horsemen to find legal workers.

And, finally, consider the hard, dangerous work they're doing, seven days a week in all weather. "It's not for everybody. The people that like to do it and want to do it ... it's not a lot of people," Stewart said.

To review: These workers are essential to a signature state industry; the people here illegally doing the work would prefer to be legal but it's hard to accomplish that. Finally, there are not many — certainly not enough — legal residents clamoring for the work.

So, let's say the General Assembly succumbs to irrational pandering, passes this law and it is actually enforced. It will fill up Kentucky's overloaded jails and prisons at huge expense to taxpayers and put extra burdens on law enforcement. Then what?

Racing stables and farms, already stressed by any number of factors outside of their control, will be lucky to find workers at almost any salary. The trickle-down will be felt throughout Central Kentucky — at tack shops, equine hospitals, feed stores and mainline retailers. Tax receipts, of course, will suffer.

And that's just one industry. We all know that immigrants, legal and illegal, work in Kentucky factories, on farms and in the construction industry. Homebuilders, still struggling with oversupply, may not be complaining now, but if their industry heats up and foreign-born workers are in jail or simply not here, that crucial sector will stumble, too.

It's a tough law, this law of unintended consequences. All lawmakers want to do is thunder a bit, attract media and votes, perhaps churn up some contributions.

But if they pass this bill, the unintended consequences will take a toll on Kentucky's economy.