The national debate on immigration policy is unlikely to do much to change the total number of immigrants who enter the country, according to experts at the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC).

“It’s hard for me to imagine that any piece of legislation would change the desire of immigrants to be in this country,” said Betsy Feigin Befus, special counsel for NMHC. “Even if we were to erect a fence along our entire northern and southern border, I don’t think it would keep people out.”

Federal policy also seems unlikely to change sharply, in part due to the reluctance of Congress to act on the issue, particularly during an election year, and pressure to keep the jobs held by immigrants filled, according to NMHC and the National Apartment Association.

These workers make up a sizable piece of the U.S. economy. The 7.2 million illegal immigrant workers who lived in the United States as of March 2005 constituted 4.9 percent of the civilian labor force, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. A third of all farmworkers were illegal immigrants. Closer to home for the development community, illegal immigrants made up more than a third of insulation workers and 29 percent of all roofers and drywall installers.

However, some local measures threaten to create liability for apartment firms that rent to undocumented immigrants, even if they do so unintentionally. For example, Hazleton, Pa., has approved an ordinance to fine landlords $1,000 for each illegal immigrant discovered renting at their properties and to deny licenses to businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

Arizona penalizes employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, suspending their business licenses for 10 days for the first offense and revoking it permanently for the second.

Courts in Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma have upheld similar ordinances. That means that unless the Supreme Court takes on one of these cases, the real debates over immigration policy are likely to be fought on the local level.