The Economic Policy Institute recently released a comprehensive report on immigration and the economy. The report was massive, and it included reams of information on both legal immigrants and the undocumented persons often labeled “Illegal.”
In one section of the report, researchers addressed a common accusation–that undocumented workers are a burden on government, and a net cost to taxpayers.
Unauthorized immigrants are a net positive for public budgets because they contribute more to the system than they take out. Unauthorized immigrants generally cannot receive benefits from government programs, except in some cases, such as when unauthorized immigrant children receive public education, and in some states that allow unauthorized immigrants to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates. Nevertheless, most of these unauthorized immigrants will still pay taxes. The vast majority pay sales taxes in states with sales taxes, and property taxes through properties that they own or rent. Additionally, most unauthorized immigrant workers also pay payroll and income taxes. The Social Security Administration estimates that 75 percent of unauthorized immigrants are actually on formal payrolls, either using fraudulent Social Security numbers or Social Security numbers of the deceased. Unauthorized immigrants pay into Social Security via automatic payroll deductions, but they can never claim Social Security benefits. In 2005, it was estimated that unauthorized immigrants paid about $7 billion per year in Social Security taxes that they will never be able to reclaim.
Unauthorized immigrants are also unlikely to receive any income credits available through the tax code, or to receive a tax refund if they overpaid in their regular payroll withholdings. The Tax Policy Center estimates that 78 percent of American households that earned less than $33,000 owed no federal income taxes in 2011.19 Many low-income taxpayers only paid marginal amounts if they did owe. Because of their low income levels, most unauthorized immigrants would likely fall into either of these categories. A significant portion of unauthorized immigrants file taxes using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs); however, many unauthorized immigrants don’t file because they fear deportation. If they don’t file, they are never refunded money that was automatically withheld from their paychecks.
The research also addressed another common belief: that unauthorized immigrants use (abuse?) public support programs like welfare, unemployment insurance, and food stamps. The data suggests otherwise.
While it is possible that an unauthorized immigrant could benefit from a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident family member receiving income support through a federal or state program, unauthorized immigrants themselves by and large are ineligible for such programs because of their immigration status.
In response to the repeated demands of our contemporary Nativists that we just deport the 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants, the report noted:
Aside from the astronomical costs it would impose and the fact that it’s likely to be a logistical impossibility, it would actually hurt, not help, the economy and the jobs situation…while unauthorized immigrant workers add to the supply of labor, they also consume goods and services, thereby generating economic activity and creating jobs. One way to think of this is to remember that the labor force is growing all the time due to both immigration and native-born population growth, and that’s okay, because the economy expands too. We all understand this intuitively; that’s why we don’t worry when a new graduate enters the labor force. We know those new graduates buy food and cars and clothes and pay rent. By the same token, unauthorized immigrants are not just workers, they are also consumers. We could remove them, which would indeed reduce the number of workers, but it would also reduce the jobs created by the economic activity they generate. So the right choice is to bring the unauthorized immigrants who are already here out of the shadows so they can help the country realize its economic potential.
Finally, the report also addressed the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America:
Tens of thousands of migrant children (or minors) from Mexico and Central America arrive at the Southwest border every year without a parent or guardian, but more recently, they have been arriving in increasing numbers from the Northern Triangle of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras… some of the principal reasons for their arrival are violence and criminality in their home countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have some of the highest homicide rates in the world), including being forced to join criminal gangs under threat of violence or death; false rumors that children will receive some sort of legal status if they show up on the border and turn themselves in to immigration authorities; and the desire to reunite with family members living in the United States.
(What the dry language of a research report fails to note is that these are children–frightened, alone and desperate for safety, and that the vitriol with which they are being met is shameful, and should be a national embarrassment.)
Those of us who have a forlorn attachment to hard evidence and documented facts can continue to hope that eventually, reality will inform policy.