I believe that by winning the birth lottery I was given the gift of growing up in this country. Because my great grandfather was the right color, the right religion and the right nationality, he was allowed to immigrate in the late 19th century. His fortune became mine, as I was given the opportunity to be what I wanted to be (sexual harassment aside) through education.
Todays undocumented workers have not received that same gift—to be born here. Due to our quirky immigration strategy, many are not allowed to immigrate legally, but come here to find work, raise their children and contribute to our society.
If you have read my past columns you know that most of us form opinions and then corral the facts to support our beliefs. This is one such instance, I believe in immigration, but I would like to present both sets of facts in hopes of demonstrating that this belief is justified.
Before I review the “good” and “inconvenient” facts, let me remind everyone that all immigrant data is speculative. As statisticians, we know how to coax the data to support our beliefs. For that reason, I have selected conservative sources (since I am liberal) with credentials for reporting accurate data. I have avoided data from FAIRUS, Breitbart and other biased sources. I also excluded a report by the Heritage foundation, since its methodology has been sharply criticized by experts from both sides of the debate.
First, the inconvenient facts, immigration is not without cost. It is estimated that health care costs can be as high as $18.5B per year (Forbes), while most estimates put the cost at $11B per year. These costs include emergency room care for uninsured workers, births, and health care to US citizens born to undocumented workers.
It is estimated that six percent of US births were to undocumented workers (Pew Research Center, 2016 estimates). The 14th amendment, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born in America is a likely incentive, however, it is impossible to assess its impact. I am not going to get into an argument on the merits of the 14th amendment, but if I were young and undocumented, I would want my children to be citizens of this amazing country.
Education is the largest cost for state and local governments. Due to a Supreme Court ruling (Plyer v. Doe, 1982) all children, regardless of immigration status, must be provided with a public education. Undocumented workers are also eligible for state Head Start programs. Education costs are estimated at $11-$30B annually (note the wide range, which shows how speculative the data are).
The “good” facts are compelling. Economists agree that immigration (both documented and undocumented) is an overall net positive to our economy (George W Bush Institute, 2016). Their data estimates that immigration increases the productive capacity of the economy and raises the GDP. Called the “immigration surplus,” its value is estimated at $36 to $72 billion per year (which offsets the costs listed above). In addition to the immigration surplus, undocumented workers help the economy by working in industries and locations where there is a need for workers.
The Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2007 that over the long term (but not in the short term), tax revenues collected from undocumented workers (including income tax, sales tax, property tax through rents, tolls, etc.) exceed the cost of services provided to them.
A national panel of economists concluded in 2016 that due to cheaper labor, the average consumer reaps the reward of undocumented workers through lower food costs, construction and services. Its value is estimated to be in the billions.
Undocumented workers are ineligible for most federal benefit programs, including social security, even though it is estimated that 50-75% of them pay taxes and contribute to social security (Congressional Budget Office, 2007). Legal immigrants are entitled to programs after 5 years but use the benefits at a lower rate than native born American citizens (Fact Sheet: Immigrants and Public Benefits, National Immigration Forum, 2018).
Most importantly, two studies conducted separately by states with high immigration rates (Arizona and Florida) concluded there is a net gain for undocumented workers when comparing costs (such as education) to their tax payments.
While eyebrows may be raised about the costs of education, it is undeniably a benefit to our nation.
The education benefit came into focus for me about 7 years ago, as I sat next to my daughter’s former babysitter. She had illegally immigrated to escape poverty and violence in war-torn El Salvador and took advantage of the 1986 amnesty law to become a citizen. That evening, she was watching her granddaughter graduate from High School. Clutching mylar balloons and the best bouquet of flowers that she could afford, she blinked back tears of joy for the granddaughter for whom she had sacrificed so much.
Immediately I was transported to a one room, dank, rustic, cold building, seated next to my great grandparents, as they watched my grandfather graduate from High School. Their weary, lined, hard faces remained stoic while mumbling “sehr gut”. I imagined my great grandparents believing in this moment that all of their sacrifice, prejudicial treatment, and struggles in a harsh farming life were for this moment. Their son would go on to graduate from college, become a CPA and father 9 children, all of whom attended college. His 30 grandchildren would become benefactors, executives, Navy pilots, teachers, lawyers, PhDs, builders, computer scientists, accountants.
This babysitter’s granddaughter would go on to become the first member of her family to graduate from college. She became a teacher.
Ignoring our deplorable history of slavery, our history of immigration is the best of our history. This is US.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.