There has been a long-running policy debate over whether immigrants, and especially those who enter the U.S. illegally, are a net asset or a net cost to taxpayers and the economy.
For example, the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports very restrictive immigration policies, estimates “the average net fiscal cost (taxes paid minus services used) of an illegal immigrant was $65,292 during their lifetime.”
By contrast, National Public Radio ran an opinion piece last November by PBS deputy digital editor Gretchen Frazee entitled “4 myths about how immigrants affect the U.S. economy.”
The first “myth” is that immigrants cost the economy more than they contribute. Frazee cites a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which found immigration “has an overall positive impact on the long-run economic growth in the U.S.”
The study concludes, “First-generation immigrants cost the government more than native-born Americans, according to the report—about $1,600 per person annually.” Which actually sounds like a cost.
However, the second generation contributes about $1,700 a year. That’s why it’s a “long-run” benefit.
Frazee explains that immigrants’ access to federal welfare programs is limited. “[T]o receive most public benefits under the social safety net, immigrants must be lawful permanent residents for at least five years.”
But, that provision wasn’t strictly enforced for years. And given the Democratic presidential candidates’ comments, it would likely be ignored or eliminated.
While anyone who is uninsured currently has the legal right to go to an emergency room and be treated, Democrats have made it very clear that everyone in the U.S., whether legally or otherwise, should have access to comprehensive health care coverage.
U.S. health care spending averages about $10,739 per person, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which would blow a hole in that $1,600 net-cost figure.
Historically, most of the illegal immigrants were younger men who were fairly healthy. They had to be for the manual labor jobs that were open to them.
But that mix is changing to include more children who can’t work and mothers who need to care for them.
In addition, were a Democratic president and Congress to open the borders AND make comprehensive health care free, people with very costly medical conditions would flock to the U.S.
But wait! If health care is a right, shouldn’t food and shelter also be a right? What’s the point of saying everyone can have free health care if they’re starving or exposed to the elements? Both proposals would necessarily follow.
Like most economists, we think legal immigrants can be a huge benefit to the economy—because historically most immigrants, whether legal or otherwise, came here to work.
Regardless of whether the first generation of immigrants is a small net plus or minus for the economy, if Democrats turn immigration into a welfare grab bag, it will be a net loss for all of us.