The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget

The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget

August 2004

Summary

This study is one of the first to estimate the total impact of illegal immigration on the federal budget. Most previous studies have focused on the state and local level and have examined only costs or tax payments, but not both. Based on Census Bureau data, this study finds that, when all taxes paid (direct and indirect) and all costs are considered, illegal households created a net fiscal deficit at the federal level of more than $10 billion in 2002. We also estimate that, if there was an amnesty for illegal aliens, the net fiscal deficit would grow to nearly $29 billion.

Among the findings:

  • Households headed by illegal aliens imposed more than $26.3 billion in costs on the federal government in 2002 and paid only $16 billion in taxes, creating a net fiscal deficit of almost $10.4 billion, or $2,700 per illegal household.
  • Among the largest costs are Medicaid ($2.5 billion); treatment for the uninsured ($2.2 billion); food assistance programs such as food stamps, WIC, and free school lunches ($1.9 billion); the federal prison and court systems ($1.6 billion); and federal aid to schools ($1.4 billion).
  • With nearly two-thirds of illegal aliens lacking a high school degree, the primary reason they create a fiscal deficit is their low education levels and resulting low incomes and tax payments, not their legal status or heavy use of most social services.
  • On average, the costs that illegal households impose on federal coffers are less than half that of other households, but their tax payments are only one-fourth that of other households.
  • Many of the costs associated with illegals are due to their American-born children, who are awarded U.S. citizenship at birth. Thus, greater efforts at barring illegals from federal programs will not reduce costs because their citizen children can continue to access them.
  • If illegal aliens were given amnesty and began to pay taxes and use services like households headed by legal immigrants with the same education levels, the estimated annual net fiscal deficit would increase from $2,700 per household to nearly $7,700, for a total net cost of $29 billion.
  • Costs increase dramatically because unskilled immigrants with legal status — what most illegal aliens would become — can access government programs, but still tend to make very modest tax payments.
  • Although legalization would increase average tax payments by 77 percent, average costs would rise by 118 percent.
  • The fact that legal immigrants with few years of schooling are a large fiscal drain does not mean that legal immigrants overall are a net drain — many legal immigrants are highly skilled.
  • The vast majority of illegals hold jobs. Thus the fiscal deficit they create for the federal government is not the result of an unwillingness to work.

The results of this study are consistent with a 1997 study by the National Research Council, which also found that immigrants’ education level is a key determinant of their fiscal impact.A Complex Fiscal Picture

Welfare use.Our findings show that many of the preconceived notions about the fiscal impact of illegal households turn out to be inaccurate. In terms of welfare use, receipt of cash assistance programs tends to be very low, while Medicaid use, though significant, is still less than for other households. Only use of food assistance programs is significantly higher than that of the rest of the population. Also, contrary to the perceptions that illegal aliens don’t pay payroll taxes, we estimate that more than half of illegals work “on the books.” On average, illegal households pay more than $4,200 a year in all forms of federal taxes. Unfortunately, they impose costs of $6,950 per household.

Social Security and Medicare. Although we find that the net effect of illegal households is negative at the federal level, the same is not true for Social Security and Medicare. We estimate that illegal households create a combined net benefit for these two programs in excess of $7 billion a year, accounting for about 4 percent of the total annual surplus in these two programs. However, they create a net deficit of $17.4 billion in the rest of the budget, for a total net loss of $10.4 billion. Nonetheless, their impact on Social Security and Medicare is unambiguously positive. Of course, if the Social Security totalization agreement with Mexico signed in June goes into effect, allowing illegals to collect Social Security, these calculations would change.

The Impact of Amnesty. Finally, our estimates show that amnesty would significantly increase tax revenue. Because both their income and tax compliance would rise, we estimate that under the most likely scenario the average illegal alien household would pay 77 percent ($3,200) more a year in federal taxes once legalized. While not enough to offset the 118 percent ($8,200) per household increase in costs that would come with legalization, amnesty would significantly increase both the average income and tax payments of illegal aliens.

What’s Different About Today’s Immigration. Many native-born Americans observe that their ancestors came to America and did not place great demands on government services. Perhaps this is true, but the size and scope of government were dramatically smaller during the last great wave of immigration. Not just means-tested programs, but expenditures on everything from public schools to roads were only a fraction of what they are today. Thus, the arrival of unskilled immigrants in the past did not have the negative fiscal implications that it does today. Moreover, the American economy has changed profoundly since the last great wave of immigration, with education now the key determinant of economic success. The costs that unskilled immigrants impose simply reflect the nature of the modern American economy and welfare state. It is doubtful that the fiscal costs can be avoided if our immigration policies remain unchanged.

Policy Implications
The negative impact on the federal budget need not be the only or even the primary consideration when deciding what to do about illegal immigration. But assuming that the fiscal status quo is unacceptable, there are three main changes in policy that might reduce or eliminate the fiscal costs of illegal immigration. One set of options is to allow illegal aliens to remain in the country, but attempt to reduce the costs they impose. A second set of options would be to grant them legal status as a way of increasing the taxes they pay. A third option would be to enforce the law and reduce the size of the illegal population and with it the costs of illegal immigration.

Reducing the Cost Side of the Equation. Reducing the costs illegals impose would probably be the most difficult of the three options because illegal households already impose only about 46 percent as much in costs on the federal government as other households. Thus, the amount of money that can be saved by curtailing their use of public services even further is probably quite limited. Moreover, the fact that benefits are often received on behalf of their U.S.-citizen children means that it is very difficult to prevent illegal households from accessing the programs they do. And many of the programs illegals use most extensively are likely to be politically very difficult to cut, such as the Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. Other costs, such as incarcerating illegals who have been convicted of crimes are unavoidable. It seems almost certain that if illegals are allowed to remain in the country, the fiscal deficit will persist.

Increasing Tax Revenue by Granting Amnesty. As discussed above, our research shows that granting illegal aliens amnesty would dramatically increase tax revenue. Unfortunately, we find that costs would increase even more. Costs would rise dramatically because illegals would be able to access many programs that are currently off limits to them. Moreover, even if legalized illegal aliens continued to be barred from using some means-tested programs, they would still be much more likely to sign their U.S.-citizen children up for them because they would lose whatever fear they had of the government. We know this because immigrants with legal status, who have the same education levels and resulting low incomes as illegal aliens, sign their U.S.-citizen children up for programs like Medicaid at higher rates than illegal aliens with U.S.-citizen children. In addition, direct costs for programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit would also grow dramatically with legalization. Right now, illegals need a Social Security number and have to file a tax return to get the credit. As a result, relatively few actually get it. We estimate that once legalized, payments to illegals under this program would grow more than ten-fold.

From a purely fiscal point of view, the main problem with legalization is that illegals would, for the most part, become unskilled legal immigrants. And unskilled legal immigrants create much larger fiscal costs than unskilled illegal aliens. Legalization will not change the low education levels of illegal aliens or the fact that the American labor market offers very limited opportunities to such workers, whatever their legal status. Nor will it change the basic fact that the United States, like all industrialized democracies, has a well-developed welfare state that provides assistance to low-income workers. Large fiscal costs are simply an unavoidable outcome of unskilled immigration given the economic and fiscal realities of America today.

Enforcing Immigration Laws. If we are serious about avoiding the fiscal costs of illegal immigration, the only real option is to enforce the law and reduce the number of illegal aliens in the country. First, this would entail much greater efforts to police the nation’s land and sea borders. At present, less than 2,000 agents are on duty at any one time on the Mexican and Canadian borders. Second, much greater effort must be made to ensure that those allowed into the country on a temporary basis, such as tourists and guest workers, are not likely to stay in the country permanently. Third, the centerpiece of any enforcement effort would be to enforce the ban on hiring illegal aliens. At present, the law is completely unenforced. Enforcement would require using existing databases to ensure that all new hires are authorized to work in the United States and levying heavy fines on businesses that knowingly employ illegal aliens. Finally, a clear message from policymakers, especially senior members of the administration, that enforcement of the law is valued and vitally important to the nation, would dramatically increase the extremely low morale of those who enforce immigration laws.

Policing the border, enforcing the ban on hiring illegal aliens, denying temporary visas to those likely to remain permanently, and all the other things necessary to reduce illegal immigration will take time and cost money. However, since the cost of illegal immigration to the federal government alone is estimated at over $10 billion a year, significant resources could be devoted to enforcement efforts and still leave taxpayers with significant net savings. Enforcement not only has the advantage of reducing the costs of illegal immigration, it also is very popular with the general public. Nonetheless, policymakers can expect strong opposition from special interest groups, especially ethnic advocacy groups and those elements of the business community that do not want to invest in labor-saving devices and techniques or pay better salaries, but instead want access to large numbers of cheap, unskilled workers. If we choose to continue to not enforce the law or to grant illegals amnesty, both the public and policymakers have to understand that there will be significant long-term costs for taxpayers.

 

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