Last fall, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a massive report that attempted to answer questions that have bedeviled the debate over immigration policy for years: Are immigrants living and working in the U.S. both legally and illegally a net plus or minus for the economy? And do they pose a serious drain on government services and welfare?
On the first question, the report found that illegal immigrants have had “an overall positive impact” on long-term economic growth, with little evidence that they have significantly depressed the wages of native-born workers with a high-school education or less. Overall, the economy benefitted from an expanding population and more jobs, and businesses frequently took advantage of a flood of cheap labor into the market.
But on the second question, the researchers found that the United States is saddled with a $279 billion annual “fiscal burden,” or the difference between tax revenues collected from first-generation immigrants and their families and the value of the social services they used. The average per capita government outlay was $15,908, according to the report, compared with per capita tax receipts of only $10,887.
The report by 20 prominent social scientists and economists left little doubt that that the nation’s 55.5 million immigrants – both legal and illegal – weren’t paying nearly enough in taxes to cover their use of public services.
While millions of undocumented immigrants have paid billions of dollars in taxes into federal, state and local coffers -- as immigration advocacy groups frequently point out -- anti-immigrant forces on Capitol Hill and now in the White House have dismissed these immigrants as freeloaders who are excessively utilizing public schools, health care and food stamps while taking away jobs from native Americans. Although jobs may not be affected nearly as much as some may think, the federal budget does take a big hit.
These and other findings are important grist in an immigration debate that has gone viral in the past week and a half, as newly ensconced President Donald Trump has delayed entry for refugees and travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries and is setting in motion a crackdown on illegal immigrants in this country that will likely lead to more deportations in the coming months.
Trump’s surprise executive order last week that touched off chaos and confusion in airports around the country and overseas apparently was just the first installment in a series of actions designed to make good on his campaign pledge to rid the U.S. of as many as 11 million illegal immigrants.
According to The Washington Post, the administration is also considering a plan to “weed out would-be immigrants who are likely to require public assistance,” as well as targeting illegal immigrants who are already living in the U.S. and making use of taxpayer-funded social and health care programs for deportation.
Many of those immigrants have little if any formal education and lack skills to obtain better-paying jobs, according to the National Academies of Science report. As a result, many of their children are on welfare and school lunch programs, placing a burden on state and local social services. Not surprisingly, the fiscal drain is felt most heavily by states with large populations of illegal immigrants.
California, for example, struggles with an $18.9 billion annual fiscal drain. Texas ranks second nationally with a $7.8 billion fiscal deficit because of excessive demands by immigrants on social services, medical facilities and schools.
The report indicated that over time, the fiscal burden will shrink to as little as $43.4 billion a year, as the second-generation immigrants who are better educated and trained than their parents pay more into the tax system to defray the cost of social services. But those projections are contingent on varying assumptions about the future education level of immigrants, government-spending levels and tax rates.
The Washington Post and VOX have both reported obtaining drafts of a second executive order that would target immigrants attempting to enter the country or are living here legally on the basis of their prospects for getting and holding a job and making minimal use of social services.
“Our country’s immigration laws are designed to protect American taxpayers and promote immigrant self-sufficiency,” stated the draft of the order obtained by The Post. “Yet households headed by aliens are much more likely than those headed by citizens to use Federal means-tested public benefits.”
A second order in draft stage calls for the elimination of the “jobs magnet” that is motivating illegal immigrants to come to the U.S., according to the newspaper. The proposed order would rescind any work visa provisions for foreign nationals that are found not to be in “the national interest” or deemed to be in violation of U.S. immigration law.
The White House declined to comment on the proposed draft orders. For now, at least, there is no clear evidence the administration intends to move ahead with them. However, as The Post noted, longstanding federal law already makes it more difficult for non-citizens to obtain most forms of public assistance.
Still, a September 2015 analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies showed that 51 percent of immigrant-headed households used at least one federal welfare program — cash, food, housing, or medical care — compared to 30 percent of native households. A follow-up report showed that the average immigrant household “consumes 33 percent more cash welfare, 57 percent more food assistance and 44 percent more Medicaid dollars” than the average native household.
But economists and policy experts differ on the degree of immigrant dependence on government social and health care programs. And even some supporters of Trump’s get-tough policies against illegal immigrants question whether the draft executive orders circulating in Washington would be practical or in keeping with American values.
Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limits on immigration, said that the Trump administration appears to be addressing “an important principle” of immigrants’ excessive dependence on social services. However, he argued that there is no way that the government could accurately gauge the likelihood of immigrants allowed into the country being financially independent.
“The problem here is, imagine a person comes to the United States and gets hurt,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “Are we not going to take care of them? We might deny them Medicaid, but are we going to keep them out of the hospitals or emergency rooms or long-term care?”
“Or somebody comes to the United States and they lose their job,” Camarota added. “They have a kid. We’re not going to give them food stamps? We’re just going to let the kid starve? We’re not going to give the kid a free lunch? Really?”
While there may be better ways to screen low-income applicants for visas to enter the country, Camarota said, he doesn’t favor cutting off welfare to immigrants in need. And targeting for deportation immigrants legally residing in the United States for using too many government services doesn’t appear to be doable – or legal.
“The problem is that if you allow in a lot of poor people, you’re going to get a lot of welfare use,” he said. “It’s just very hard to imagine our society [cutting benefits] after the fact.”