Much of the fight over illegal immigration isn’t about immigration at all, but rather over the generous social safety net that has sprung up in the past five decades, and which has proved to be a major sticking point in voters’ minds as Congress contemplates a legalization.
While Americans appear increasingly ready to accept legal status for illegal immigrants, they are less sanguine over the prospect of having to pay for welfare, Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare benefits for those immigrants.
Foreseeing the hurdle, the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators who wrote the Senate immigration bill took pains to deny taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants who get legal status — but only until they eventually win their citizenship, at which point they are eligible for the same programs as any other citizen.
“This isn’t 1907, when the previous wave of immigration peaked. This is the cradle-to-grave welfare system in the United States,” Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, told his colleagues at a hearing earlier this month called to examine the costs and benefits of immigration. “Milton Friedman said clearly that an open-borders program and a cradle-to-grave, or welfare, system cannot coexist. And that’s what we’re doing here.”
The Senate’s immigration bill, which cleared the committee process last week and heads to the chamber floor in June, will likely test both sides of that equation.
The crux of the deal legalizes most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, but it withholds a full path to citizenship until after the administration spends more money on border security, enacts a mandatory electronic worker verification system, and creates an system for checking visitors’ visas when they enter or leave air and seaports.
Once they are citizens, newly legal immigrants would be eligible for all the same benefits and services to which the native-born and other naturalized citizens are entitled, including President Obama’s new health care program.
That sparked a fight in the Judiciary Committee this month, where Democrats — occasionally joined by two Republicans — defeated an effort by Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, to deny newly legalized immigrants access to any means-tested programs such as welfare or Medicaid.
Senators also shot down amendments by Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, to limit immigrants’ eligibility for tax breaks.
Both of those battles will likely be reprised on the Senate floor, and in the House, where another bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to write a bill. The House negotiations almost broke down last week over how to handle health insurance for newly legalized immigrants.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who used to run the Congressional Budget Office and is now president of the conservative American Action Forum, said that the lesson from the immigration debate is not to exclude immigrants from programs but to fix the programs themselves.
“These are fundamentally broken systems that will not survive, and they certainly will not survive if you put more people into them. And that has nothing to do with immigration, and nothing to do with decisions we make about immigration,” he said at a forum Wednesday sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “That’s something that should be recognized — needs to be fixed, big problem, we’re behind the curve in getting it solved. But it’s not an immigration problem.”
By Mr. Holtz-Eakin’s calculations, enacting immigration reform would actually be a boon to the economy, to the tune of nearly an extra percentage point of growth, which he said could reduce the federal budget deficit by $2.7 trillion over that period.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, countered with a report earlier this month agreeing that the Senate bill will help in the short term by bringing more workers into the legal system, meaning they are now paying taxes, but denying them added benefits.
In the long run, though, those immigrants will eventually retire and collect Social Security and Medicare, which are the public pensions and health insurance plans for the elderly. Robert Rector, the Heritage report’s author, calculated that over their lifetime, households led by newly legalized immigrants will consume $592,000 more in government benefits than they’ll pay in taxes.
On Wednesday another study entered the fray — this one published by Health Affairs, a journal that covers public health policy, and it found that immigrants paid $13.8 billion more into the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund in 2009 than they collected in benefits, while native-born Americans took out a net $30.9 billion more than they paid in.
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants a crackdown on immigration, said that when one cuts through all the numbers, it comes down to education levels: Only 10 percent of native-born Americans lack a high school degree and just 20 percent of legal immigrants also lack one.
But a shocking 53 percent of illegal immigrants haven’t completed high school, he said, and workers with those qualifications — whether native-born or immigrant, legal or illegal — are a net drain on the government.
Mr. Camarota said even if policymakers do follow Mr. Holtz-Eakin’s advice and change the entitlement system, they will still end up shielding the poor from the changes. And since most illegal immigrants are poor, that means legalization will only be adding a larger number of folks who cannot be touched by benefit cuts.
“You can’t grow the poor and then say what we need to do is do a whole lot less for the poor,” Mr. Camarota said. “Yeah, the system isn’t viable like this, you’re going to have to make some cuts. But you’re making it that much tougher.”