Are Immigrants a Drain on Government Resources?

By Annie Lowrey

Last weekend, the Department of Homeland Security released a draft rule change designed to make immigrating to the United States harder and the immigrant experience more fraught, impoverished, and perilous. The proposal would deny green cards to people who use popular government anti-poverty programs—ones for which they legally qualified—including food stamps, Medicaid, prescription-drug subsidies, and housing vouchers.

The rule change is an expansion of existing law, which already bars many non-citizens from accessing public aid and seeks to ensure immigrant families are self-supporting. “Those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a press release. The rule would “promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

Yet immigrants are not a sap on “finite” resources. In the longer term, immigrants contribute more to the government’s coffers than they receive in social spending. Moreover, these programs are not just welfare or a handout, but also an investment, helping ensure that families are healthy, educated, and able to work and support themselves over the course of generations.

The rule change—long in the works, and long opposed by anti-poverty nonprofits, legal-aid groups, immigration advocates, social-justice organizations, and many others—is a technical one. The 447-page proposal would make caseworkers consider the legal use of public benefits as a “heavily weighed negative factor” in considering whether to grant an immigrant entry to, or the right to remain in, the country. It would affect 400,000 people a year, the administration estimates, among them prospective and current legal immigrants.

Immigration experts anticipate that the maneuver would make it harder for low-income families to come to the United States and would scare immigrants away from the safety net—with profound repercussions for their health and well-being, and a profoundly disparate impact on communities of color. Among those who would likely avoid seeking government aid, they said, would be the millions of mixed-status families, with both citizen and non-citizen members, already here.

The proposal’s mathematics are brutal and zero-sum, implying that a dollar spent helping an immigrant is a dollar not spent helping a native-born American and that immigrants are a drain on public resources. This is not at all the way that the numbers add up. For one, because the government runs deficits nearly every year, your average American is a drain on Uncle Sam, not just your average immigrant. The American people do not provide a net fiscal benefit to the government, regardless of their citizenship or legal status.

Further, the government’s resources are not “finite.” Immigrants do not come and steal things away from native-born Americans. Immigrant families pay taxes. They work. They start businesses. They spend money in their communities. They join native-born families in being economically productive, both paying money to the government and receiving benefits from the government.

Do they receive more than they take—that is, are they a net drain? Again, the answer is no. Lower-income immigrant families might receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. But that mathematical equilibrium is temporary, and an artifact of the way the tax-and-transfer system is structured to help lower-income families and to support families with kids. As one Federal Reserve summary of the research puts it: “If immigrants are assigned the marginal cost of public goods, then the long-run fiscal impact is positive and the short-run effect is negative but very small (less negative than that of natives).” Given some time in the country, these families pay in, in other words. One estimate puts the net present value of each immigrant to the government at $259,000. The Trump administration would prefer a smaller country, a smaller economy, and a more perilous long-term fiscal picture, evidently.

Plus, disinvesting in families—particularly families with young children—might save the government a few safety-net dollars, but at the cost of hurting those families’ health and long-run earning potential. “The proposal at its core says that work and family don’t matter; wealth and income are what matters,” said Olivia Golden, the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, in a call with reporters. “It targets documented working parents playing by the rules, who are looking to health, nutrition, and housing supports for their families and we know from decades of research that children’s well-being—their health, their economic security, their schooling and learning—depends on their parents and on their family’s stability of income, housing, and nutrition security.”

Indeed, the policy would likely discourage pregnant women from seeking prenatal care. It will spook families with young kids away from health programs that would provide them with immunizations. It would discourage families from getting help to ensure their kids eat enough high-quality food. It would increase poverty rates among families with non-native members. The result? More missed days of school, fewer kids making it through high school, lower college-graduation rates, depressed lifetime earnings, more emergency-room visits, more heart disease, more deprivation.

It would also, of course, result in more poverty now. Yesenia Chavez of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health describes the proposal as “life-threatening,” something that would make it “impossible for people of color and immigrants to be in this country and live with dignity.” She added in a statement: “Federal assistance programs like Medicaid or [food stamps] are critical for immigrant families, and a change in policy would force immigrant families of all immigration status to forgo access to their basic needs, like health care, food, and housing, in order to keep their families together.”

The math is off, as well as cruel. In some way, the government itself admits it. “DHS has determined that the proposed rule may decrease disposable income and increase the poverty of certain families and children, including U.S. citizen children,” the draft rule reads. “For the reasons stated elsewhere in this preamble, however, DHS has determined that the benefits of the action justify the financial impact on the family.” Only in some blinkered, zero-sum sense. Depriving immigrant families of health care, healthy food, insurance, and antipoverty supports does not just hurt them. In the long term, it hurts everyone.

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