A man and his son wave the flag of El Salvador at an immigration rally in New York City.

Is Unauthorized Immigration an Economic Drain on American Communities? Research Says No.

In October 2017, the Tar River Times, a newspaper with a small print circulation in Tarboro, North Carolina—the hometown of both immigration sociologist Helen Marrow and race and education sociologist Will Tyson—published an editorial (available in print only) by Patsy Miller, a retired high school Spanish teacher. Miller began her column expressing her frustration about having to interact with call-center employees located in India, then went on to focus on “illegal immigration” to the United States. She alleged that undocumented migration was a “major problem,” in fact “the biggest factor” in “taxpaying” seniors like herself “losing more and more benefits.” It is, she wrote, the reason this country is “going broke.” Miller listed a series of claims about the negative costs of illegal immigration, and invited readers to verify her data by providing URLs for her sources.

Within days, a local Tarboro resident familiar with Dr. Marrow’s research and skeptical of Miller’s allegations, wrote to ask Marrow whether the information was “fake news.” Marrow read the editorial, becoming concerned about the soundness of Miller’s data sources and the potential for biased or flawed data to skew reader perspectives toward an incomplete and potentially incorrect view of immigrants and the impact of unauthorized immigration. Marrow thought of her own students at Tufts University outside Boston, so often surprised to learn what sound, peer-reviewed research says about these matters. “We never hear this,” one student said of such research in 2016. “All we hear are the negative messages [about immigrants] in the media. We hear it so much we even believe it, too.”

Marrow shared the editorial with Tyson, who currently lives and teaches in Tampa. Miller had been one of their high school Spanish teachers, and they had grown up with Miller’s daughter. Together, they knew that Miller’s comments could—and should—not be dismissed, even by people who are aware that the facts do not support her claims. In small towns like Tarboro, residents with academic credentials, expertise, and high standing in the community such as high school teachers can easily be considered go-to local experts.

So Marrow and Tyson felt compelled to provide, as experts themselves, an evidence-based critique of the kinds of arguments in Miller’s editorial. Indeed, some local residents were already looking for such a response, but had learned quickly that “fake news” spreads more rapidly than sound news (Lazer et al. 2018). And the really good information on the impacts of immigration is typically locked behind the paywalls and inscrutable prose of specialty academic journals, inaccessible to the public in so many ways.

Miller’s arguments in the editorial are quite typical of negative media messages that work to incite and uphold a “Latino cyber-moral panic” in their readers (Flores-Yeffal, Vidales, and Martinez 2017). So to craft an informed response, Marrow and Tyson reached out to other North Carolina sociologists with expertise in immigration: Susan C. Pearce of East Carolina University and Martha Crowley and Kim Ebert of North Carolina State University.

Together, our team has aimed to do three things: 1) assess the soundness of the data Miller presents, taking her up on her suggestion to use her sources to verify her claims; 2) provide more accurate information regarding the economic impacts of immigrants and immigration, using peer-reviewed research; and 3) offer an explanation for how and why flawed and biased anti-immigrant messages are so often reported in the media. The literature on this topic is vast, so we highlight just a few key points that readers can use to learn how to spot and critique biased and unfounded messages about immigrants and immigration in their own communities.

1) Purely Negative Media Accounts of the Economic Costs of Unauthorized Immigration Often Rely on Questionable Sources.

As social scientists and immigration scholars who search for, analyze, and report data, and who document the sources and the nature of our analyses very closely, we first sought to determine the quality of Miller’s sources and their data. Quickly, we learned that the statistics traced to the websites of ideologically slanted advocacy groups and to other sites that did not work, did not link to actual information, or consisted of transcripts of television shows on which individuals made false or unverified statements.

To illustrate, Miller alleges that unauthorized immigrants burden U.S. state governments every year with between $11-22 billion in welfare, $22 billion in food assistance programs (such as WIC, food stamps, and school lunches), $2.5 billion in Medicaid, $12 billion on primary and secondary education, and $17 billion for “anchor babies” (a frame explicitly intended to deride the American-born citizen children of unauthorized immigrants). Miller further alleges that unauthorized immigrants cost $90 billion annually in a poorly-defined spending category she terms “Welfare and Social Services.”

In providing “verification” for these claims, Miller points to several unreliable sources. One is the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), founded by John Tanton, the father of the modern nativist movement with an avowed anti-immigration mission. Another is the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), another of Tanton’s organizations, which is a partisan, immigration-restrictionist think tank in Washington, DC.

Many of the reports published by these groups fall short of the standards of intellectual rigor required by scholarly research. They should be regarded with healthy skepticism. Where they do draw from the same data employed by scholars—such as expert panels at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematics, who have recently published major reports on immigrant integration (NASEM 2015) and the economic impacts of immigration (NASEM 2017), which we discuss below—their analyses are not subject to peer review and they often arrive at different conclusions, raising questions about their methodology. The other sources Miller provides are simply not verifiable; clicking on their URLs sends users to webpages that do not work.

Miller’s data sources for her editorial are thus unverifiable or presented by partisan groups’ skewed analyses.

2) Unauthorized Immigrants Have Little or No Negative Effect on the Wages and Employment of U.S.-born Citizens, and Immigrant Workers Have Positive Effects on American Consumers.

How unauthorized immigration affects the U.S. labor market and American workers’ wages and employment is a more complex question than Miller alleges, and answering it requires knowing where to find scientifically sound data. The most recent, credible study of the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration comes from the NASEM 2017 panel referenced above. In the realm of wages and employment, this study largely confirms what prior studies have shown: that immigration, in general, has little impact on wages and employment of U.S.-born workers. Over a period of more than 10 years, the economic impact of immigration on both wages and employment rates of U.S. natives is reportedly “very small” (pp. 5-6). To the extent that Americans experience negative effects on wages or employment with respect to immigrants, those effects are largely borne by prior immigrant entrants who still reside in the United States, not by U.S.-born citizens (also see Bean and Stevens 2003).

Research specific to the effect of unauthorized immigration also demonstrates that impacts are concentrated in particular pockets of immigrant populations. Data from the Mexican Migration Project, for example, demonstrate that any wage declines that might be traced to unauthorized Mexican immigration are primarily experienced by prior Mexican immigrants and by Mexican Americans, rather than by White or Black Americans (Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002; Massey and Gentsch 2014). Careful simulations also suggest that if unauthorized immigration were to decrease, it could both benefit and hurt American workers’ wages and employment. That is, while small increases in the wages of low-skilled U.S.-born workers would be possible, high-skilled U.S.-born workers could also see declines in their wages and employment rates (Chassamboulli and Peri 2015, cited in NASEM 2017: 195). At the higher end of the wage spectrum, research suggests that inflows of skilled immigrants have positive wage effects. This is consistent with theories of economic complementarity, which suggest high-skilled immigrant and U.S.-born workers have skills that mainly complement rather than compete with each other (NASEM 2017: 5-6).

Finally, academic research indicates that the presence of immigrant workers (both authorized and unauthorized) in the labor market has expanded the U.S. economy by an estimated 11 percent, representing an increase equivalent to $2 trillion of the GDP in 2016 (Borjas 2013, cited in NASEM 2017: 282). At the same time, the presence of unauthorized workers contributes disproportionately to reduced prices, particularly in those services U.S.-born consumers so often rely upon, including childcare, food preparation, housekeeping, landscaping, gardening, and construction (NASEM 2017: 292).

The small negative economic effects of immigration are largely borne by other immigrant workers, and the even-smaller negative wage and employment effects researchers can identify are often offset by positive economic effects.

3) Unauthorized Immigrants Do Not Have Large Negative Fiscal Impacts on Taxes and Public Spending When Long-Term Effects and Contributions to Federal Coffers Are Taken into Account.

In order to conclude that unauthorized immigration has only negative impacts on taxes and public spending, a researcher would have to decontextualize and rely upon a very narrow portion of the data. The NASEM study finds that the total fiscal costs of immigration to the national economy are more visible in what immigration scholars call the “first immigrant generation” than they are in subsequent generations (immigrants’ U.S.-born descendants). In fact, immigrants’ second-generation children have been shown to be “among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the [U.S.] population” (NASEM 2017: 7).

So too are the fiscal costs of immigration more visible if we move our focus to the state and local levels, excluding the federal level of government. Consequently, studies that take a longer-term, dynamic approach to understanding immigrants’ impacts on taxes and public spending over a longer period of time—such as an immigrant’s entire lifetime—reveal more beneficial impacts than studies that take a static, shorter-term approach (Bean and Stevens 2003). Likewise, if we restrict our searches to state and local finances, the situation looks worse, but if we consider federal finances, where immigrants’ tax revenue contributions are more visible, immigration is better for the country’s economy.

To illustrate, while research approaches vary, the experts who authored the NASEM 2017 study find that the cost of first-generation immigrants and their dependents to state and local budgets during the three-year period between 2011 and 2013 was approximately $1,600 per family. The opposite was true of immigrants’ second and third generations, who “create[d] a net positive of about $1,700 and $1,300 each, respectively, to state and local budgets” in the same time frame (p. 12). These numbers mean that first-generation immigrant adults and their dependents were estimated to “cost” a total of $57.4 billion annually at that time, while the second- and third-generation offspring of immigrants added $30.5 billion and $223.8 billion, respectively. Even short-term fiscal costs in the form of expenditures (such as providing K-12 public schooling for first-generation immigrants) can be viewed as an “investment” that can “drive higher wages in the future,” since “later in the life cycle, working and tax-paying adults typically become net contributors to public finances” (p. 324).

The statistics Miller cites regarding the purported costs of unauthorized immigrants to state and local governments are untrue. Even if they were true, a longer-term analysis would easily demonstrate how first-generation “investments” are capable of producing fiscal “benefits” as quickly as the second generation.

In another careful study conducted a decade earlier, Bean and Stevens (2003) reached a similar conclusion regarding immigrants’ alleged welfare costs. The benefits that go to immigrants are largely concentrated among older refugees, who enter the country legally with the explicit support of the U.S. government. Compared to both refugees and poor U.S.-born citizens, poor legal labor immigrants are less likely to receive welfare of any kind (p. 74). Unauthorized immigrants are ineligible for most U.S. welfare programs. They cannot receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Nonemergency Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) (Fox 2016; NASEM 2017: 300). They are ineligible for public health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare), nor are they eligible to purchase subsidized private health insurance through the federal and state exchanges (Marrow and Joseph 2015; Joseph and Marrow 2017). In many states, unauthorized immigrants are also prevented from accessing in-state tuition for higher education, including many who completed their entire K-12 education in that particular state.

Where unauthorized immigrants are deemed eligible for public benefits by law, the research record shows they typically under-utilize such services, presumably due to fear of deportation (e.g., Berk and Schur 2001; Chavez 2012; Goldman, Smith, and Sood 2006; Portes, Fernández-Kelly, and Light 2009). These “chilling effects” are also found among their U.S.-born citizen children, who frequently forego and under-utilize the critical benefits and services to which these children are legally entitled (Hacker et al. 2011; Hagan et al. 2003). Even “anchor babies” aren’t draining U.S. coffers.

There are two exceptions to unauthorized immigrants’ categorical exclusion from welfare. First, low-income, pregnant unauthorized immigrant women qualify for “Emergency Medicaid,” a time-delimited aid of lower value than the “regular,” nonemergency Medicaid program that low-income U.S.-born citizens can receive. Emergency Medicaid only covers labor and delivery, mandated by federal law to protect the health and safety of all U.S. citizens during childbirth. It does not cover either prenatal or postnatal healthcare. In other words, it is a benefit paid to a citizen child, not to the mother.

Second, following the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyer v. Doe, all children in the United States are required by federal law to be provided with a K-12 education. This includes those U.S.-citizen children Miller dismisses as the “American-born children of illegal immigrants, known as Anchor Babies.” Bean and Stevens’s (2003) analysis refutes the idea that unauthorized immigrants’ children, via the K-12 schooling, constitute a costly “social problem.” Free or reduced-cost school meals, unlike some other non-cash programs, cost taxpayers “very little” —only $6.2 billion, or about $231 per recipient per year (p. 79). In fact, those scholars found that providing food assistance is a relatively low-cost way to invest in the human capital of these growing U.S. citizens of the second generation, who, as shown above, will go on to contribute net fiscal benefits, especially at the federal level, to the U.S. economy (more than offsetting the fiscal costs attributed to their parents).

Even in the short term, there are visible fiscal benefits that come with unauthorized immigration. It is now clear that unauthorized immigrants are the “one group of immigrants [who] has been a major, clear benefit for Social Security” and Medicare, because they contribute far more than they withdraw. In 2007, an estimated 5.6 million unauthorized workers paid $12 billion into the Social Security system. Of the trust’s total assets, these contributions account for approximately 5 to 10% (a cumulative net contribution between $120 and $240 billion) of the $2.24 trillion in trust (Schumacher-Matos 2011; also see Porter 2005; Schumacher-Matos 2010). By 2010, unauthorized wage earners and their employers paid approximately $13 billion in payroll taxes, with those workers receiving just $1 billion in payout benefits (Goss et al. 2013). From 2000 to 2011, unauthorized immigrants also contributed between $2.2 and $3.8 billion more than they withdrew annually from the Medicare Trust Fund, creating a total surplus of $35.1 billion, which has been estimated to count for a full additional year of predicted Medicare solvency (currently projected to extend to the year 2030) (Zallman et al. 2015, cited in NASEM 2017: 328).

When Miller and other seniors worry about “losing more and more benefits” to support unauthorized immigrants, they selectively omit a crucial point: U.S. citizens are the beneficiaries of some of the taxes unauthorized immigrants pay out. Overwhelmingly, unauthorized immigrants are not.

4) What’s Really Going On? Research Points to Economic, Cultural, and Racial Anxiety.

In sum, Miller’s editorial selectively highlights and exaggerates some of the short-term costs of unauthorized immigrants’ welfare receipt to state and local governments, while simultaneously downplaying the available evidence regarding their longer-term benefits to federal coffers, overall economic growth, and consumer prices. Perhaps more damning are the alleged social costs she attributes to unauthorized immigrants. Miller asserts that unauthorized immigrants are draining the economy through remittances, participating in sex crimes, and crowding federal prisons.

While we do not focus on these arguments in detail here, we can note several fairly obvious problems with these claims and the soundness of the data provided in support of them. Straightaway, Miller says unauthorized immigrants’ remittances total “$45 billion.” This figure appears to include a typo and its source webpage does not work. Our best guess is that it is a mistyped figure from an International Fund for Agricultural Development study on global remittances (tallied to $445 billion in 2016 (de Vasconcelos et al. 2017). That is, the number includes all international immigrants, not just unauthorized ones nor even just unauthorized immigrants to the United States. Miller’s claim regarding sex crimes links to www.Drdsk.com, a URL that leads only to advertisements from sites promising cheap reports on anyone’s criminal past.

Data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons refute Miller’s report that 30% of all federal prisoners are unauthorized immigrants. As of March 2018, 79.8% of federal inmates are U.S. citizens. Of the remainder, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security data indicate that only some have received deportation orders; others are under investigation or pending adjudication, or have requested relief on the basis of asylum claims. Further, many undocumented immigrants are detained only because they are undocumented. Currently, this is not even technically a crime, but a civil infraction. And it is odd to characterize their detention as a “cost” to the U.S. criminal justice system, since arresting, detaining, and deporting undocumented immigrations is a discretionary, state- and local-level choice generating expenditures that could be deemed “arguably unnecessary” (Schumacher-Matos 2011: 109).

Notwithstanding the real threats of organized crime and international trafficking, social scientists have studied the issue of immigrant criminality since the 19th century, consistently finding lower rates of crime among immigrants, especially unauthorized ones, than among the U.S.-born population (e.g., Adelman et al. 2017; Rumbaut and Ewing 2007).

Social scientists have identified public fears that are correlated with anti-immigrant sentiment, and Miller’s piece unwittingly hits on some of the biggest. Take economic anxiety and threat: Miller is retired and neither low-skilled nor low-income, so is in no danger of direct job competition with unauthorized immigrants. Yet she claims that she is among those “seniors” who worry they are “going broke” due to unauthorized immigration. She also exhibits significant concern for nation’s fiscal state (Calavita 1996; Citrin, Muste, and Wong 1997; Huber and Espenshade 1997). Field experiments show that anxious individuals exhibit biased information processing; even in the realm of immigration, they are more likely to read, remember, and agree with threatening information than are their less-anxious peers (Gadarian and Albertson 2014). It is not surprising, then, that someone feeling economic anxiety can make pre-existing negative messages in the media, which consistently misquote and over-represent unreliable “experts” and “statistics” on immigration (Flores-Yeffal, Vidales, and Martinez 2017; Waldman et al. 2008) to appear more credible. Indeed, Miller seems to have found her unverified figures and sources from such suspect media, easily available here and here, then passed along the misleading and flawed information as fact.

Scholars have also documented the use of racial stereotyping and ideologically-motivated reasoning mixed with, and possibly even underlying, concerns about economic matters as voiced in negative media accounts of unauthorized immigration. Nearly two decades ago, Burns and Gimpel (2000) found evidence that, especially among Whites, individuals’ economic insecurities activate racial stereotyping about the work ethic, intelligence, and welfare receipt of Asians and Hispanics. In turn, that activation prompts support for restrictions on immigration. Newer field experiments confirm that Americans’ assessments of the fiscal impacts of immigrants in areas such as unemployment, schools, and crime are highly racialized, connected to stereotypical beliefs about the traits of Latin American—but not European, Asian, and Middle Eastern—immigrants (Brader, Valentino, and Suhay 2008; Masuoka and Junn 2013; Timberlake et al. 2015).

Miller’s column likewise appears to connect concerns about cultural and racial change to economic costs. Her questionable data and unfounded allegations about the economic and even sexual costs of “illegal” immigrants—most of whom are Latin American in origin today—are presented immediately following wandering and derogatory comments linking “Hindus” to jobs at the local “convenience store, gas station, donut shop, taxi cab, or motel.” She employs the derogatory term “anchor baby”—a conservative media frame that attempts to reposition the children of unauthorized immigrants, who are U.S. citizens by Constitutional birthright, not only as undeserving outsiders and fiscal burdens, but as “browning” racial threats (Chavez 2018: 6; also see Chavez 2008). Connecting to an image of an overly fertile immigrant woman desiring to strip America of its financial, and by connection, also its cultural and moral, resources is a frame that is not only racialized but highly gendered (Chavez 2001). In real life, female immigrants to the U.S. from around the world are exhibiting unprecedented rates of business ownership and self-employment. While their impact on local and national economies cannot be measured precisely, interviews with these entrepreneurs indicate that they are creating jobs for both the U.S.-born and foreign-born, paying for property rental, consuming products and services, and contributing to needy causes, community projects, and the arts (Pearce, Clifford, and Tandon 2011: 129-158). In these ways, we reemphasize that unauthorized immigrant women offer long-term economic benefits that far outweigh any short-term costs.

Making Good Knowledge Available 

Social science methods and tools show that the claims made in Miller’s column are questionable at best, unfounded at worst. Research has also been able to uncover various factors, like anxiety, racial resentment, and motivated reasoning, that commonly underlie negative public opinion toward unauthorized immigrants, and that arguably even underlie Whites’ concerns about such immigrants’ economic and fiscal costs (Enos 2017: Chapter 5; Huber and Espenshade 1997). Nonetheless, our findings are not easily accessible to ordinary Americans living in rural and small-town communities like Tarboro—even to healthy skeptics hoping to learn the facts behind moral panic. When Marrow reached out to Latino immigrant leaders in eastern North Carolina, they were dismayed by Miller’s column, but felt powerless to respond. “This is [simply] what life is like for Latinos since Trump,” one wrote back to Marrow. All people are disempowered when they lack access to sound, factual information.

Unauthorized immigration does not have solely positive fiscal impacts. Nor does it have solely negative fiscal impacts. Economic frames may not always change public opinion on unauthorized immigration; that depends on the particular policy domain being considered (Hayes, Merolla, and Ramakrishnan 2016). But perhaps having access to this information can ensure that community-level debates about the economics of immigration can center on real data. As the Tarboro resident who contacted Marrow put it, he doesn’t mind his fellow townspeople engaging in fruitful conversation and debate. He just wants that conversation to be based on fact.

Helen B. Marrow is in the sociology department at Tufts University. She is the author of New Destination Dreaming: Immigration, Race, and Legal Status in the Rural American South and co-editor of The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965Will Tyson is in the sociology department at the University of South Florida. His research examines STEM educational and career pathways, with a focus on student- and institutional-level influences on high school and college science and math course taking and STEM degree attainment. Susan C. Pearce is in the sociology department at East Carolina University. She is co-author of Immigration and Women: Understanding the American Experience and co-editor of Istanbul: Living with Difference in a Global CityMartha Crowley is in the sociology department at North Carolina State University. She studies immigration and economic restructuring in new immigrant destinations, welfare reform and child poverty, and neoliberalism and labor relations. Kim Ebert is in the Sociology department at North Carolina State University. She studies the causes and consequences of collective action, the politics of immigrant adaptation, and the maintenance of racial inequality.


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