May 6, 2008

The Cost of Immigration

A recent study by the Center for Immigration Studies calculated the fiscal burden to our economy of “illegal immigration.” The author of the report, Steven A. Camarota, argued that, in 2002, households headed by undocumented immigrants imposed more than $26.3 billion in costs to the federal government, although they only paid $16 billion in taxes. He includes in his calculations the cost of sending their primarily US citizen children to school, Medicaid, food stamps, and free school lunches. In fact, most of the costs generated by households headed by undocumented people are the cost of raising their US citizen children.

Of course, this could be solved by preventing undocumented immigrants from having children. This option, however, is morally questionable as it infringes in many ways on people’s rights to form a family and have a private life. Moreover, these children will be part of the workforce of the future, and it is thus expected that society cover some of the costs of their upbringing. Investment in public education, for example, is generally seen as a good investment with high returns for society. The fact that many households headed by undocumented migrants qualify for food stamps and Medicaid is clearly not the fault of the migrants themselves, but of their employers who pay them so little.

Many media pundits complain that undocumented immigration drives down wages. Scholars on this topic generally argue that this is not the case, but there is not full consensus on the issue. What is clear, however, is that it is not the fault of the low-wage workforce that they are paid so little. The fault lies in a government who lets minimum wage fall far below what is needed for survival and that allows companies to rely on the government to feed and provide shelter for their workforce.

I am not arguing that means-tested programs should not exist. I am arguing that means-tested programs should serve as a safety net for people who are temporarily or permanently out of work, or who are going through hard times. They should not, however, serve as a subsidy to corporations. Minimum wage laws should be living wage laws, i.e., people should earn as much as they need to survive. And, these laws need to be enforced.

he idea that low-income people and undocumented immigrants pose a fiscal burden is ultimately a matter of perspective. Low-income families, both documented and undocumented, pose a fiscal burden because the laws of this country allow employers to pay wages that are below the levels needed for subsistence. Were the laws to be changed such that employers had to pay enough to their workers such that they could survive, these low-income families would no longer pose a fiscal burden.

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