One of the key selling points being touted to win support for the immigration-reform legislation in the U.S. Senate is that newly legalized immigrants will not be eligible for federal benefits — until at least a decade from now.
Most immigrants come to America for a better life, "not to become dependent on government," said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and one of the "Gang of Eight" who crafted the bill. "We simply cannot burden the American taxpayer with the costs of federal benefits being granted to illegal immigrants."
However, while illegal immigrants cannot access certain federal benefits, they are eligible — and in fact entitled to — services provided and paid for by state and local governments. Those governments bear the bulk of the costs for illegal immigration.
Consider California, home to an estimated 2.8 million illegal immigrants, more than any other state. California has one-third of the nation's welfare population, among its highest unemployment and tax rates, and chronic budget deficits (despite this year's reprieve based on a retroactive tax increase).
Many of those in the United States work illegally, but many are also on public assistance. Immigrants unlawfully are eligible for emergency-room services, pregnancy-related services, public health and other programs. U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants are eligible for welfare, medical services, food stamps and other programs. States also are responsible for providing education and law-enforcement services to illegal immigrants.
In the Golden State, the cost for educating the schoolchildren of those in the country illegally, for example, has been estimated at $1.9 billion, tens of millions of dollars for higher education and $670 million in welfare cash assistance. An estimated 778,000 illegal immigrants are on Medi-Cal, California's version of Medicaid, at a cost to the state of $580 million. Nearly 14,000 illegal immigrants are incarcerated in California prisons at a cost this year of nearly $800 million, with federal reimbursement of only about 10 percent.
Other reports put total costs higher. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that California spends "tens of billions" to cover services for illegal immigrants.
What about taxes paid by illegal immigrants who work? Doesn't that help pay for these services?
A key problem is that, through no fault of their own, many of those in the U.S. illegally lack education and so are often in low-income households that pay little in taxes.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, almost half of 25- to 64-year-old illegal immigrants in California did not graduate from high school. As a result, and despite high labor-force participation for men, wages and incomes are low. Nationwide, 21 percent of adult illegal immigrants and one-third of the children of illegal immigrants were living in poverty in 2007. Estimates suggest similar poverty rates in California. Yet although illegal immigrants with low incomes are eligible for benefits through their children, including welfare benefits, they "pay little in taxes," the institute stated.
In fact, while much is being made of a recent Congressional Budget Office report that claims the Senate reform measure would reduce the federal budget deficit by $200 billion over 10 years, for the "rest of the story" — the impact on state and local governments — members of Congress should review the findings of another report.
In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office noted that state and local governments bear much of the costs of providing services to illegal immigrants and are subject to federal requirements and court decisions that restrain them from lowering costs. The report also found that unauthorized immigrants typically earn less than do native-born citizens and other immigrant groups and, as a result, they pay smaller portions of their incomes in taxes.
"The tax revenues that unauthorized immigrants generate for state and local governments," the report stated, "do not offset the total cost of services provided to those immigrants."
Already, nearly half of Americans pay no federal income tax. In California, 40 percent of tax filers pay no state income taxes. Low-income individuals who are legalized under the federal reform still would be exempt from state and federal income taxes.
Once given lawful status, illegal immigrants would become eligible to access many state and local benefits — a new hit on state and local budgets — but without providing enough taxes to cover the costs. In addition, unless the borders are secured first, rather than legalization established first as in the current bill, the legislation would become a magnet for even more illegal immigration.
Can the United States afford to combine a vast expansion of illegal immigration with our already out-of-control welfare state?
One look at California provides the answer.
Margaret A. Bengs served as a speechwriter for former California Gov. George Deukmejian.