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To Swallow The Propaganda or To Research The Facts? Comprehensive Immigration Policy and the Undocumented

Immigration 2

An excellent, and recommended, post at Let’s Talk Nevada, drew all the usual suspects in the comment section.  The short piece, “To Deport or To Not Deport,” inspired the following xenophobic response which invites some additional commentary:

“The cost of illegal immigrants yearly is a staggering $113 billion dollars according tp FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform.) The issue of Anchor babies is being discussed in this election. Are they really American citizens? The burden of illegal immigrants upon our society is enormous. Health Care Costs, educating their children in American Schools, legal costs and the cost of keeping those convicted in jails is staggering. America cannot afford to support those people who come here without means of supporting themselves.” (emphasis added)

One of the common features in discourse from those opposed to comprehensive immigration reform is the word selection which states or implies that the United States is awash in unproductive undocumented “burdensome” immigrants in “staggering” numbers.

Let’s consider the two points the anti-immigration advocates are promoting. Is the US awash in undocumented immigrants? 

First, the population of the United States at the moment is estimated by the Census Bureau to be 321,657,235 as we speak.  The number of undocumented immigrants is estimated by the Department of Homeland Security to be 11.4 million.  A quick calculation shows that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States as o.03544 or 3.5% of the total population.  Thus, about 97% of the people in the US are citizens or are here legally.  This really doesn’t support the notion that the US is drowning in a sea of undocumented residents.

Secondly, has there been any increase in illegal immigration such that the percentage calculated above is likely to increase in the immediate future? No.  The images of a flood of the undocumented flowing over the porous border with Mexico is a carefully tended bit of xenophobic mythology, the truth is rather different.

The worker bees at Politifact decided to investigate former President Bill Clinton’s statement that between 2010 and 2014 there was no net in-migration from Mexico.  True.   However, comprehensive immigration policy reform opponents appear to be locked into a time warp in which, like Ground Hog Day, it’s always 2007.

“According to Pew’s estimates, the undocumented population grew rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s, rising from 3.5 million in 1990 to a peak of about 12.2 million in 2007. The total dropped during the recession, however, and has been roughly flat since then at about 11.7 million in 2012.6 A narrow majority — about 52 percent — are from Mexico, although a growing share are from Central America and, increasingly, Asia.” [538]

Are these people an unendurable burden on this country?  Right wing, and anti-immigration sources tout a figure of some $4.3 billion annually for health care services for the undocumented paid for by the tax payers, which they say is extrapolated from estimates of costs for emergency room services and free clinics.  A Rand Study is slightly less histrionic:

“Similarly, the undocumented constituted 12 percent of the nonelderly adult population (Los Angeles, CA)  but accounted for only 6 percent of spending. Extrapolating to the nation, total spending by the undocumented is $6.4 billion, of which only 17 percent ($1.1 billion) is paid for by public sources. The foreign-born (especially the undocumented) use disproportionately fewer medical services and contribute less to health care costs in relation to their population share, likely because of their better relative health and lack of health insurance.”

Let’s put that $1.1 billion into some perspective.  For $810 million you could purchase two A380 Airbus passenger airplanes which accommodate about 853 people each.  For $945 million you could purchase the AC Milan football (soccer) team. For the entire billion you might be able to get Roman Abramovich to sell you the Chelsea FC.  [TheRichest]  None of these come close to the total (public and private) health care expenditures for the latest estimates from the CDC.  Our total national health care expenditures were $2.9 trillion (2103) which equals about 17.4% of our GDP. [CDC] Yes, that’s trillion, with a T.  Now, how much of that was public health care services?

The answer, according to World Bank Data, is 47.1% which sounds impressive until we look at the 83.5% in the UK, 69.8% in Canada, 76.8% in Germany, 77.5% in France, 78% in Italy, 82.1% in Japan, 55.8% in China, and 70.4% in Spain.   Thus, we seem to be getting inordinately excited about an amount which is less in percentage terms than other industrialized nations, and which at best will only get a person 2 big airplanes or one major soccer team.

There’s also a problem with the alarmism about the cost of educating undocumented children.  Again the estimates from anti-immigrant or nativist groups puts the cost at $761 million per year.   Again, we’re not speaking of an outlandish number of individuals.  Of the total number of undocumented individuals in the US about 4.4 million are under 30 years of age.  As of 2012 there were approximately 4.7 million undocumented adults who were parents of minor children (3.8 million whose children were US citizens). [CAP]   Two important puzzle pieces need to be inserted.

One, it is the law of the land, as expressed in the Supreme Court decision in Plyler vs. Doe (1982) that “A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” [Cornell]  So, whether the number is inflated, conflated, or specious doesn’t matter – since 1982 states cannot discriminate against school children because of their immigration status.

Second, there’s a problem with that $761 million figure.  It comes from an organization with some “baggage” in terms of immigration –as in “hate” group luggage. It also seems assumes that every undocumented child of every undocumented adult will be enrolled in a school.  This isn’t exactly competent calculation.  Nor are the numbers likely to “add up” because different states will use differing funding formulas to absorb the cost of educating children, as one right wing source admits in its article using the $761 million figure.

The commenter’s line, “America cannot afford to support those people who come here without means of supporting themselves,”  implies that undocumented individuals are without “means of support,” and therefore must be (1) non-taxpayers and (2) using the social welfare services in the U.S.

Wrong on both counts.  First, unauthorized immigrants make up about 5.1% of the total US labor force. [Pew]  Secondly, we have Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump asserting that “the annual cost of free tax credits alone paid to illegal immigrants quadrupled to $4.1 billion in 2011.”  Politifact jumped in at this point.  Their assessment gave Mr. Trump a “half true” rating.  As of 2009 (not 2011) unauthorized individuals were paid $4.2 billion in refundable tax credits, over a four year period.  Since undocumented individuals can’t get Social Security cards they can file with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, ITIN.  ITINs constitute an amorphous group of both those documented and undocumented.  Among the group of “legal” filers are refugees, asylum seekers, foreign workers in higher education, technology employees, and people who own businesses in the US but don’t live here.  Regardless of immigration status, and the number of ITIN filers who aren’t “legal” isn’t clear at all, none are eligible for Social Security. In fact, undocumented workers paid in $12 billion in payroll taxes but will never get Social Security benefits.

The tax credit Mr. Trump is speaking of goes back to the 2001 Bush tax cuts:

“The credit as it stands today was established in the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, one of the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush. Unlike in 1996, Congress did not write a provision barring ITIN filers from claiming the refund.

As a result, claims for the additional child credit have increased significantly since 2001, according to the Treasury Inspector General audit. By 2009, 2.3 million ITIN filers received $4.2 billion through the additional child credit, a four-fold increase over 2005.” [Politifact]

Yes, undocumented workers ARE taxpayers:

“Collectively, they paid an estimated $10.6 billion to state and local taxes in 2010, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a research organization that works on tax policy issues. Contributions varied by state. In Montana they contributed $2 million. In California, more than $2.2 billion. On average they pay about 6.4% of their income in state and local taxes, ITEP said.

A 2007 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the impact of undocumented immigrants on the budgets of local and state governments cited IRS figures showing that 50% to 75% of the about 11 million unauthorized U.S. immigrants file and pay income taxes each year.” [CNNMoney]

And do they qualify for US social services programs?  Again the answer is a resounding NO:

Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and most other public benefits. Most of these programs require proof of legal immigration status and under the 1996 welfare law, even legal immigrants cannot receive these benefits until they have been in the United States for more than five years. [CNNMoney]

And then there are those “legal costs.”  Much of this argument refers back to, and is informed by, an April 1, 2006 episode on the Lou Dobbs Show. This would be an April Fool’s piece if the mis-information hadn’t been so widely disseminated and taken for truth by immigration opponents.

Supposedly, there’s “some $3 million a day spend to incarcerate illegal entrants, and about 30% of all Federal Prison inmates are illegal immigrants.” The facts are less dramatic:

Both of these claims can be traced back to that same April 1, 2006, episode of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on CNN, in the same segment, with the same correspondent, Christine Romans. But the e-mail misrepresents what Romans said. She gave figures for people who are “not U.S. citizens,” a category that would include legal residents as well as “illegal aliens.”

Romans said that “according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 30 percent of federal prisoners are not U.S. citizens,” adding that “most are thought to be illegal aliens.” Actually, the Federal Bureau of Prisons does not keep figures on illegal immigrants. What solid numbers we can find point to a much smaller figure. A Department of Justice report from 2003 found that only 1.6 percent of the state and federal prison populations was under Immigration and Customs Enforcement jurisdiction, and thus known to be illegal immigrants. Half of these prisoners were detained only because they were here illegally, not for other crimes.

The Bureau of Prisons does track prisoners by offense when information is available. By that metric, 10.7 percent of prisoners in federal jails were incarcerated for immigration offenses in 2009. In 2006, when Romans gave her report, the figure was 10.2 percent.

The “$3 million dollar a day” figure is based on the false assumption that  30 percent of all inmates are illegal immigrants, and thus is greatly inflated. [FactCheck.org]

The Bottom Line

In the simplest possible terms:

  • In terms of the number of undocumented persons in the US, we are NOT awash in any sort of flood of “illegal” entrants. Except in the minds of those who think 3.5% of the total population is entirely too many.
  • Undocumented persons are not a drain on our health care system, indeed they use the services less than the general population.  Again, this would only be disturbing to those who want them not to have any services, even in the event of an emergency.
  • Undocumented individuals do not excessively burden our educational institutions.   There is currently no way to precisely calculate the costs, and there is no way a state may discriminate against children who are undocumented as the Supreme Court ruled back in 1982.
  • Undocumented immigrants may file for child tax credits, but that too, is the law of the land – since 2001; and they do pay payroll taxes. They are not eligible for Social Security, SNAP, Medicaid, or any other services which require proof of citizenship.
  • Far from being indigent burdens to the community – the undocumented comprise 5.1% of the total US labor force. That’s Labor, as in Working.
  • No, undocumented individuals are not clogging American federal and state prisons. 1.6% were classified as undocumented and only half that number were convicted of any crime other than illegal entry.

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