The Cost of Immigration Enforcement

The Cost of Immigration Enforcement

By Edward Schumacher-Matos - May 7, 2010

NEW YORK -- Increased enforcement against illegal immigration is coming. But what would you think if the price of this enforcement was more than the present cost of unauthorized immigrants to you as a taxpayer?

The two are, in fact, roughly balanced today, raising questions about how much more enforcement makes sense. The answer: Some, but not much.

Let's look at the numbers. Start with how much immigrants add to the economy versus how much it costs to provide them with services. Despite the many fevered claims, no one knows the exact figures. But a consensus among otherwise opposing economists is that in the short term -- I repeat, the short term -- it is largely a wash.

Unauthorized immigrants, even in today's recession, contribute slightly to economic growth, job creation and the wages of most Americans. The exception concerns the bottom 10 percent of wage earners, made up mostly of immigrants, plus native-born high school dropouts. But even for this group, the job loss is small, and the wages lost to illegal immigrants are between zero and 5 percent.

The impact we pay as taxpayers, meanwhile, is slightly negative. Illegal immigrants pay less in taxes than what they receive in local, state and federal services. But they also receive fewer services than citizens.

As Gregory Hanson, an economist at the University of California at San Diego, concludes from reviewing many studies, the total fiscal cost is somewhere around one-tenth of 1 percent of gross domestic product. The total gain to American workers and employers is around three-hundredths of a percent of GDP. This means a slight overall negative economic impact of seven-hundredths of a percent, which falls within rounding errors and could just as easily be slightly positive.

It makes you wonder what the fuss is all about. The cost for schools and hospitals is greater in some border states and local communities where there has been a big influx of illegal immigrants. But the benefit in jobs and business in those areas has also been greater.

Now let's look at enforcement. In 2009, the budget for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which patrols the borders, was $9.5 billion. The budget was $5.4 billion for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which conducts workplace raids and employer audits. The total is almost $15 billion. This is not counting local and state police, jail and court outlays, such as those that Arizona, through its new immigration enforcement law, has just committed to pay.

Yet, the seven-hundredths of a percent of GDP that we calculated for total economic burden is roughly just $10 billion. In other words, we already are paying more for enforcement than what the current level of illegal immigration is costing us. This is a rough calculation, but the various studies wouldn't change the bottom line much.

How much more, then, should taxpayers cough up?

The Obama administration and both parties in Congress are all committed to increasing enforcement. They respond to our demand, as seen in a New York Times/CBS News poll released last week in which 74 percent of those surveyed believed that illegal immigrants "weaken" the economy, 78 percent said the government "could be doing more" on the border to stop them, and 60 percent said the new Arizona law requiring police to detain anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant was either "just right" or not enough.

To be sure, we do need to improve enforcement, if just to know who is here. But aside from some additional measures in open border areas such as Arizona, the answer is not in the greatly expanded -- and costly -- border militarization that many in the public and some politicians demand. Current measures are already significantly reducing illegal immigration. The most effective new ones involve job controls such as a tamper-proof Social Security card.

The Border Patrol itself says that selective targeting on the Mexican border of drug runners and terrorists (of which there have been none so far) is much more effective than massive militarization. It's also a whole lot cheaper.

Over the course of their lifetimes, most illegal immigrants are net economic contributors -- even fiscally -- which is a reason for legalizing the ones who are already here.


Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Edward Schumacher-Matos

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