The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 3, 2017

What the research says about immigrants hasn’t changed

Despite signs from President Trump that he might soften his hardline stance on immigration, the portrayal of the economic and social ills of immigration was front and center in his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

The president painted a portrait of immigrants as criminals, drug smugglers, gang members, and a threat to public safety despite the conclusions across most studies (as summarized by the Cato Institute) that show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States, and that immigration does not correlate with high crime rates.

Highlighting the criminality of immigrants, Trump invited relatives of people who were killed by unauthorized immigrants to attend the speech and initiated a new federal office that will publicize crimes committed by immigrants.

He also used alarming language to justify his recent policies barring the entry of people from seven majority-Muslim countries and to instill fear of terrorism from abroad.

The president’s rhetoric segued from immigration enforcement and border security to the billions of dollars immigration costs taxpayers annually as grounds for blocking low-skilled immigrants in favor of a merit-based system, citing a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) study on the economic and fiscal consequences of immigration.

As researchers on that and another recent NAS study that reviewed comprehensive evidence around the impacts of immigrants, what we know about these issues is very different from what Trump presented. Looking at the evidence, the majority of immigrants are not to be feared but should be recognized for their economic, social, civic, and cultural contributions to this country.

What the NAS reports actually say about immigration

First, we are all taxpayers. The “American taxpayer” includes immigrants who are authorized to live here and those who are unauthorized. And while some unauthorized immigrants might not pay income taxes, they and all immigrants pay sales and property taxes (either directly or through the rent they pay).

Second, the pattern of government spending and funds received from immigrants is roughly the same as it is for native-born people with similar characteristics. That is, children are a net cost because they receive public education and pay no taxes, working-age people contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and older people benefit more from government spending, primarily through Social Security and Medicare.

The fiscal contribution or cost depends on how we think about who those costs and taxes should be allocated to. While some costs, such as education and health care, increase as eligible populations increase, others, such as defense, are public goods and do not. A large share of government spending, especially federal spending, falls into the second category.

If we average costs of public goods across all residents, and assign the costs of children to their parents, immigrants do cost more than they provide in taxes. But so do all other residents, including US citizens.

The United States, after all, is running an annual budget deficit—over a trillion dollars in 2013. Thus, while immigrants cost the United States $279 billion in 2013 (based on our calculations), non-immigrants cost close to $1 trillion—with a t.

If, instead, we assign only marginal costs to immigrants—in other words, if we don’t count the cost of public goods against them—they still cost more than they contribute in taxes. But their costs are a much smaller share than their share of the population. And the red ink assigned to US natives is much higher.

Immigrants tend to be more expensive than native-born people for state and local governments largely due to education costs. Immigrants tend to have more children, and state and local education costs are high. But we invest in children’s education because they are our future workers, teachers, and leaders, regardless of their parents’ background.

Finally, immigrants integrate over their lifetime and across generations. By most measures, today’s immigrants and their children are integrating, but race, legal status, and origin country play a role.

Successful integration means that immigrants change once they arrive, and native-born Americans and US institutions change in response. It has been working this way for over 240 years.

The demographic-economic nexus of immigrants

The economic case for immigration is clear when we look at the demography of the United States. Immigrants arrive in their prime working years and help balance a native population that is aging out of the workforce.

Both NAS studies demonstrate how immigrants add to the economic growth and vitality of our country, from the less educated immigrants who provide vital labor to the disproportionate number of immigrants highly educated in science and technical fields who start businesses, file patents, and increase overall productivity.

The nation may want to reconsider the criterion for immigration policy going forward. But these decisions should be based on evidence and an appreciation of our interdependence in a global economy rather than fearmongering and scapegoating. 

While standing indoors, Javier Flores becomes overwhelmed by emotions, and surrounded by his family, as supporters visit the Mexican immigrant during a Defy Trump, Defend Philly, Expand Sanctuary Rally, in Center City Philadelphia, on March 2, 2017. After a 16 month detention Javier Flores, a father of three, is in sanctuary since four months. Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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