Immigration drains the government, sapping as much as $296 billion a year from federal, state and local taxpayers while depressing wages, at least in the short run, according to an authoritative study released Wednesday by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
The 500-page academic tome is supposed to be the final word about the fiscal and economic effects of mass immigration, and its findings challenge some long-held assumptions of Washington policymakers that immigration is an unqualified benefit.
The data show that immigrants take more in benefits than they pay in taxes. Although immigrants do boost the size of the economy, the gains are heavily skewed toward the immigrants themselves and to wealthy investors — not to native-born workers who end up competing with the new arrivals.
“It reminds us, the big beneficiaries of immigrants are the immigrants themselves, and American business. The losers tend to be the poor,” said Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, who was one of the report’s official reviewers but was not part of the formal panel that wrote it.
The report also concludes that new arrivals aren’t assimilating as well as past waves of immigrants. They struggle to learn English and to increase their wages at the rates of immigrants just a few decades ago.
Written in heavily caveated academic language, the report tested a number of models of economic and fiscal policy based on different assumptions about immigration. That meant the scholars came up with ranges of outcomes rather than firm answers.
But those ranges were sometimes conclusive, particularly when it came to government finances. The researchers tested eight scenarios, and in each of them taxpayers came out worse.
The best-case scenario put the federal government ahead but states behind, for a total loss of $43 billion in 2013. The worst-case scenario showed federal, state and local governments losing $296 billion in 2013. That would be equivalent to about 4 percent of total government spending that year.
Francine D. Blau, the Cornell University economics professor who led the academic panel, insisted the findings showed American workers had little to fear from immigration.
“The panel’s comprehensive examination revealed many important benefits of immigration — including on economic growth, innovation and entrepreneurship — with little to no negative effects on the overall wages or employment of native-born workers in the long term,” the professor said.
She said, though, that the picture for government finances “is more mixed” and acknowledged “negative effects” on budgets of states, which have to pay for the costly education of immigrants’ children.
“But these children of immigrants, on average, go on to be the most positive fiscal contributors in the population,” she said in a statement announcing the report.
George J. Borjas, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who was part of the panel that prepared the report, praised Ms. Blau for leading the effort, saying in a blog post that she was “patient, fair [and] professional.”
The conclusions he took from the report, though, painted a decidedly grimmer picture of immigration’s fiscal and economic costs, particularly in the short run, for workers whose skills most closely match those of the new arrivals.
“The economic impact of immigration is, at best, a net wash for the average native-born person,” he said. “The gains accruing from the immigrants’ productive contributions are probably offset by the fiscal burden. But even though the mythical average person is unaffected, some groups gain a lot and some groups lose a lot.”
The gainers, the report said, are usually those with capital — wealthy investors and business owners who run the companies that benefit from the influx of workers.
“Those who compete with immigrants are effectively sending billions and billions of dollars annually to those who use immigrants,” Mr. Borjas said.
Underlying the report is the large increase in immigration in recent years.
During the 1980s, the country took in about 600,000 migrants a year. In the early 1990s it was 800,000 a year. But since the dawn of the century, the country has averaged more than 1 million legal immigrants a year. They accounted for 42.3 million people in 2014, which was about 13 percent of the population.
As many as 400,000 illegal immigrants also arrive each year, though they are balanced by about the same number of illegal immigrants either returning home, dying or gaining some form of legal status, so their number remains static at slightly more than 11.1 million this decade.
Immigration has become a major topic in the presidential race this year.
For years, orthodoxy among both parties in Washington was that while illegal immigration was complicated, legal immigration was an unqualified good that should be increased.
Voters, however, have long been skeptical, telling pollsters that they wanted the level of legal immigration either to be kept the same or reduced.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tapped into that sentiment by calling for an immigration system that serves Americans — drawing fierce rebukes from Democrats and immigrant rights groups that said he was bordering on xenophobia and risking U.S. economic sufficiency.
A report released Wednesday by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress argued that deporting illegal immigrants would oust 7 million people, or about 5 percent, from the workforce. That would shave $4.7 trillion off the economy over the next decade, or about 2 percent.
“Mass deportation is a policy of all loss and no gain,” said Tom Jawetz, the center’s vice president of immigration policy.