The economist Milton Friedman warned that the United States cannot have open borders and an extensive welfare state. He was right, and his reasoning extends to amnesty for the more than 11 million unlawful immigrants in this country. In addition to being unfair to those who follow the law and encouraging more unlawful immigration in the future, amnesty has a substantial price tag.
An exhaustive study by the Heritage Foundation has found that after amnesty, current unlawful immigrants would receive $9.4 trillion in government benefits and services and pay more than $3 trillion in taxes over their lifetimes. That leaves a net fiscal deficit (benefits minus taxes) of $6.3 trillion. That deficit would have to be financed by increasing the government debt or raising taxes on U.S. citizens.
For centuries immigration has been vital to our nation’s health, and it will be essential to our future success. Yet immigrants should come to our nation lawfully and should not impose additional fiscal costs on our overburdened taxpayers. An efficient and merit-based system would help our economy and lessen the burden on taxpayers, strengthening our nation.
A properly structured lawful immigration system holds the potential to drive positive economic growth and job creation. But amnesty for those here unlawfully is not necessary to capture those benefits.
We estimate that when those who broke our laws to come here start having access to the same benefits as citizens do - as is called for by the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill - the average unlawful immigrant household will receive nearly $3 in benefits for every dollar in taxes paid. The net annual cost is $28,000 per unlawful immigrant household.
Given the federal debt of $17 trillion, the fiscal effects detailed in our study should be at the forefront of legislators’ minds as they consider immigration reform.
Already, illegal immigrants impose costs on police, hospitals, schools and other services. Putting them on a path to citizenship means that within a few years, they will qualify for the full panoply of government programs: more than 80 means-tested welfare programs, as well as Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare. The lifetime fiscal cost (benefits received minus taxes paid) for the average unlawful immigrant after amnesty would be around $590,000. Who is going to pay that tab?
Our government is now in the business of redistribution. As Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, has pointed out, federal transfer payments, or taking from one American to give to another, grew from 3 percent of spending in 1935 to about two-thirds of all spending in 2010. Adding millions of unlawful immigrants to U.S. programs will have a massive negative fiscal effect.
Our findings are based on empirical research and reflect common sense. Unlawful immigrants have relatively low earning potential because, on average, they have 10th-grade educations and low skills. Heads of households like that, whether from the Midwest or Central America, will receive, on average, about four times as much in government services and benefits as they pay in taxes. Adding millions more to bloated welfare and overburdened entitlement programs would deepen the fiscal hole our country is in.
In addition to costing taxpayers, amnesty is unfair to those who came to this country lawfully. More than 4 million people are waiting to come to the United States lawfully, but our dysfunctional bureaucracy makes it easier to break the law than to follow it.
Our cost estimates are in some ways very conservative: The $6.3 trillion figure does not factor in the waves of unlawful immigrants who could pour into this country hoping for another future amnesty. As scholars at the Heritage Foundation and elsewhere have explained, the comprehensive immigration bill being considered in the Senate differs little from previous empty promises to secure our borders and enforce immigration laws on the books. When amnesty was granted under a similar plan in 1986, there were about 3 million unlawful immigrants; now we have more than 11 million.
Instead of forcing through a complicated, lengthy bill, Congress ought to advance piece-by-piece immigration solutions that enjoy broad support and build trust with the American people. We should move to streamline our legal immigration system, encourage patriotic assimilation to unite new immigrants with America’s vibrant civil society, fulfill promises to secure our borders and strengthen workplace enforcement.
We are proudly a nation of immigrants. People the world over are attracted to the United States because we are a nation of laws. Granting amnesty to those who broke the law and putting them on a path to citizenship would be unfair, would encourage more bad behavior and would impose significant costs on American families.
Jim DeMint is president and Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.