A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cost of Illegal Immigrants


Q: Do illegal immigrants cost $338.3 billion dollars a year? More than the Iraq war?

A: A chain e-mail that makes this claim is loaded with errors and misleading assertions. Published studies vary widely but put the cost to government at a small fraction of that total.

FULL QUESTION

I wonder if much of this is true? Is this on your radar screen?

This is astounding and infuriating. Why isn’t this in the papers? Please read and pass it on.

WHY ARE WE BANKRUPT?

Informative, and mind boggling!

You think the war in Iraq is costing us too much? Read this:

Boy am I confused. I have been hammered with the propaganda that it is the Iraq war and the war on terror that is bankrupting us.

I now find that to be RIDICULOUS.

I hope the following 14 reasons are forwarded over and over again until they are read so many times that the reader gets sick of reading them. I have included the URL’s for verification of all the following facts.

1. $11 Billion to $22 billion is spent on welfare to illegal aliens each year.
Verify at: http://tinyurl.com/zob77

2. $2.2 Billion dollars a year is spent on food assistance programs such as food stamps, WIC, and free school lunches for illegal aliens.
Verify at: http://www.cis..org/articles/2004/fiscalexec.html

3. $2.5 Billion dollars a year is spent on Medicaid for illegal aliens.
Verify at: http://www.cis..org/articles/2004/fiscalexec.html

4. $12 Billion dollars a year is spent on primary and secondary school education for children here illegally and they cannot speak a word of English!
Verify at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0604/01/ldt.0.html

5. $17 Billion dollars a year is spent for education for the American-born children of illegal aliens, known as anchor babies.
Verify at http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0604/01/ldt.01.html

6. $3 Million Dollars a DAY is spent to incarcerate illegal aliens.
Verify at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0604/01/ldt.01.html

7. 30% percent of all Federal Prison inmates are illegal aliens.
Verify at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0604/01/ldt.01.html

8. $90 Billion Dollars a year is spent on illegal aliens for Welfare & social services by the American taxpayers.
Verify at: http://premium.cnn.com/TRANSCIPTS/0610/29/ldt.01.html

9. $200 Billion Dollars a year in suppressed American wages are caused by the illegal aliens.
Verify at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0604/01/ldt.01.html

10. The illegal aliens in the United States have a crime rate that’s two and a half times that of white non-illegal aliens. In particular, their children, are going to make a huge additional crime problem in the US
Verify at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0606/12/ldt.01.html

11. During the year of 2005 there were 4 to 10 MILLION illegal aliens that crossed our Southern Border also, as many as 19,500 illegal aliens from Terrorist Countries. Millions of pounds of drugs, cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana, crossed into the U. S from the Southern border.
Verify at: Homeland Security Report: http://tinyurl.com/t9sht

12. The National Policy Institute, ‘estimated that the total cost of mass deportation would be between $206 and $230 billion or an average cost of between $41 and $46 billion annually over a five year period.’
Verify at: http://www.nationalpolicyinstitute.org/pdf/deportation.pdf

13. In 2006 illegal aliens sent home $45 BILLION in remittances back to their countries of origin.
Verify at: http://www.rense.com/general75/niht.htm

14. ‘The Dark Side of Illegal Immigration: Nearly One Million Sex Crimes Committed by Illegal Immigrants In The United States.’
Verify at: http://www.drdsk.com/articleshtml

The total cost is a whopping $ 338.3 BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR AND IF YOU’RE LIKE ME HAVING TROUBLE UNDERSTANDING THIS AMOUNT OF MONEY; IT IS $338,300,000,000.00 WHICH WOULD BE ENOUGH TO STIMULATE THE ECONOMY FOR THE CITIZENS OF THIS COUNTRY.

Are we THAT stupid? YES, FOR LETTING THOSE IN THE U.S. CONGRESS GET AWAY WITH LETTING THIS HAPPEN YEAR AFTER YEAR!!!!!

If this doesn’t bother you then just delete the message. If, on the other hand, if it does raise the hair on the back of your neck, I hope you forward it to every legal resident in the country including every representative in Washington, D.C. – five times a week for as long as it takes to restore some semblance of intelligence in our policies and enforcement thereof.

FULL ANSWER

This chain e-mail has been forwarded to us by readers many times over the past year. The most recent version adds a new angle, claiming that the amount of money taxpayers spend on illegal immigrants would be enough to “stimulate the economy.” But no matter the spin, the e-mail is rife with errors.

It also contains several red flags that should tip off readers that this is more bogus than believable. For one thing, the figures given don’t add up to a “whopping $338.3 billion dollars a year” spent on illegal immigrants in the U.S., as the e-mail claims.

The e-mail lists 14 claims about illegal immigrants, all of which were included in a longer list penned by anti-immigration activist Frosty Wooldridge and published on the conservative Web site NewswithViews.com on Jan. 22, 2007. Another NewswithViews columnist, Lynn Stuter, included Wooldridge’s list, with some updated links, in an article posted on April 15, 2008.

The source cited for at least nine of the items is either the conservative Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) or the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), both of which call for more restrictive immigration laws. CIS spokesman Bryan Griffith told us that he had never seen the e-mail but that he suspected something was out there because of occasional surges in traffic that forced him to rewrite Web pages. When told about the e-mail’s contents and conclusion of a $338.3 billion yearly cost, he responded that CIS “never said anything of the like and is not going to comment on a chain e-mail that is in no way scientific.”

The e-mail also continually blurs the important distinction between legal and illegal immigrants – a sign of sloppy and untrustworthy work.

Summary

Because we’re gluttons for punishment, we’ve gone through each claim in turn and report on each in detail farther down. But here are a few highlights (or lowlights) of what we found:

  • The e-mail includes a link to a CIS report that contradicts some of the e-mail’s own claims. The report found that illegal immigrant welfare use “tends to be very low.” It also estimates the total federal net cost of households headed by illegal immigrants at under $10.4 billion, a small fraction of what this message claims.
  • One “paper” that is cited is a non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific study that essentially fabricates a number for illegal immigrant criminals.
  • Five of the links lead to transcripts of Lou Dobbs’ cable television show, which fulminates regularly against illegal immigration and is hardly a neutral source. Furthermore, in all instances, the e-mail then takes the original Dobbs reporting out of context.

So, how much do illegal immigrants cost federal, state and local governments in the U.S.? Estimates vary widely, and no consensus exists. The Urban Institute put the net national cost at $1.9 billion in 1992; a Rice University professor, whose work the Urban Institute criticized, said it was $19.3 billion in 1993. More recently, a 2007 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office examined 29 reports on state and local costs published over 15 years in an attempt to answer this question. CBO concluded that most of the estimates determined that illegal immigrants impose a net cost to state and local governments but “that impact is most likely modest.” CBO said “no agreement exists as to the size of, or even the best way of measuring, that cost on a national level.”

The Details

For those who want more, we take on each of the e-mail’s claims in order:

1. “$11 Billion to $22 billion is spent on welfare to illegal aliens each year.”

This item is completely false. The link given to “verify” the claim actually leads to an issue brief by the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. But the FAIR brief says nothing of the sort. It says: “Each year, state governments spend an estimated $11 billion to $22 billion to provide welfare to immigrants.” That’s welfare payments in 2001 to all immigrants – both legal and illegal – plus households including U.S. citizens if they are headed by a person who was born outside the United States.

The site says the FAIR report was last updated in October 2002, but a footnote credits this statistic to a March 2003 report from the Center for Immigration Studies. CIS began as an off-shoot of FAIR. But the CIS report doesn’t actually say anything about $11 billion or $22 billion. And it explains that its references to “immigrant households” include persons here legally and persons born outside the U.S.

CIS report: Like the Census Bureau, and other academic work that has examined this question, this report looks at welfare use by immigrant and native households. Households are defined as immigrant or native based on the nativity of the household head. As already indicated, this report uses the terms immigrant and foreign-born synonymously.

CIS estimated that welfare payments to illegal immigrant households averaged $1,040 per household in 2001, mainly Medicaid “on behalf of their U.S.-born children.” But the report did not attempt to come up with a total for all such households.

2. “$2.2 Billion dollars a year is spent on food assistance programs such as food stamps, WIC, and free school lunches for illegal aliens.”

3. “$2.5 Billion dollars a year is spent on Medicaid for illegal aliens.”

These figures supposedly come from a 2004 report by CIS that estimated the costs to the federal government of households headed by illegal immigrants in 2002. But the CIS report actually put the costs of food stamp, WIC and free school lunch programs to “illegal alien households” at $1.9 billion, not the $2.2 billion claimed in the e-mail. The $2.5 billion figure for Medicaid to such households is quoted accurately, but again, much of this was in benefits for U.S.-born children, who are citizens.

Most interesting is that the CIS report includes a total net cost estimate to the federal government for illegal immigrants of just under $10.4 billion for the year, after accounting for the taxes these immigrants paid. That doesn’t include any potential costs to state or local governments, but it’s a far cry from this e-mail’s cost claim of $338.3 billion.

CIS report: Households headed by illegal aliens imposed more than $26.3 billion in costs on the federal government in 2002 and paid only $16 billion in taxes, creating a net fiscal deficit of almost $10.4 billion, or $2,700 per illegal household.

Even CIS’ figures have been questioned by other researchers. The Urban Institute reviewed a related 2003 CIS paper and concluded that its “methods overstate the percentage of the population receiving Medicaid and the share of immigrants on Medicaid, resulting in misleading conclusions about welfare use among immigrants.”

Even so, the CIS report actually rebuts claims repeated by this chain e-mail:

CIS: Our findings show that many of the preconceived notions about the fiscal impact of illegal households turn out to be inaccurate. In terms of welfare use, receipt of cash assistance programs tends to be very low, while Medicaid use, though significant, is still less than for other households. Only use of food assistance programs is significantly higher than that of the rest of the population. Also, contrary to the perceptions that illegal aliens don’t pay payroll taxes, we estimate that more than half of illegals work “on the books.”

4. “$12 Billion dollars a year is spent on primary and secondary school education for children here illegally and they cannot speak a word of English!”

5.”$17 Billion dollars a year is spent for education for the American-born children of illegal aliens, known as anchor babies.”

Both links given to “verify” these claims lead to an April 1, 2006, episode of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on CNN. During the show, correspondent Christine Romans cited both of these stats and attributed them to FAIR. A FAIR research paper from 2005 does include these cost projections, but a closer look shows that the underlying assumptions are inflated or unsupported.

The FAIR report starts with the presumption that there are “1.5 million school-aged illegal immigrants residing in the United States.” That figure is attributed to an Urban Institute presentation that doesn’t actually say that. Instead, the Urban Institute said: “We estimate that there are about 1.4 million undocumented children under 18 with about 1.1 million of school age (5 -19).”

The FAIR report also assumes there are 2 million “U.S.-born siblings” of illegal immigrant families. However, the Urban Institute makes no estimates of U.S.-born siblings and FAIR gives no citation for its figure. And in any case, again, those U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants are themselves U.S. citizens and not “illegal aliens.”

6. “$3 Million Dollars a DAY is spent to incarcerate illegal aliens.”

7. “30% percent of all Federal Prison inmates are illegal aliens.”

Both of these claims can be traced back to that same April 1, 2006, episode of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on CNN, in the same segment, with the same correspondent, Christine Romans. But the e-mail misrepresents what Romans said. She gave figures for people who are “not U.S. citizens,” a category that would include legal residents as well as “illegal aliens.”

Romans said that “according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 30 percent of federal prisoners are not U.S. citizens,” adding that “most are thought to be illegal aliens.” Actually, the Federal Bureau of Prisons does not keep figures on illegal immigrants. What solid numbers we can find point to a much smaller figure. A Department of Justice report from 2003 found that only 1.6 percent of the state and federal prison populations was under Immigration and Customs Enforcement jurisdiction, and thus known to be illegal immigrants. Half of these prisoners were detained only because they were here illegally, not for other crimes.

The Bureau of Prisons does track prisoners by offense when information is available. By that metric, 10.7 percent of prisoners in federal jails were incarcerated for immigration offenses in 2009. In 2006, when Romans gave her report, the figure was 10.2 percent.

The “$3 million dollar a day” figure is based on the false assumption that  30 percent of all inmates are illegal immigrants, and thus is greatly inflated.

8. “$90 Billion Dollars a year is spent on illegal aliens for Welfare & social services by the American taxpayers.”

The link to “verify” this claim is dead. However, we found a transcript of a Lou Dobbs episode on Oct. 29, 2006, in which Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation made the following statement:

Robert Rector, Oct. 29, 2006: Well, assuming that we have about 11 million immigrants in the U.S., the net cost or the total cost of services and benefits provided to them, education, welfare, general social services would be about $90 billion a year, and they would pay very little in taxes. It’s important to remember that at least half of illegal immigrants are high school dropouts.

We checked with Rector, who said he was referring to both legal and illegal low-skill immigrant households (those headed by someone who doesn’t have a high school diploma). His research also looked at many forms of government spending per household, including money spent on parks and transportation.

9. “$200 Billion Dollars a year in suppressed American wages are caused by the illegal aliens.”

Again, this is from that same April 1, 2006, Lou Dobbs episode. On the show, Dobbs said that “estimates by the most authoritative and recent study put the suppressed wages at $200 billion a year, as a result of immigration, both legal and illegal.” The e-mail continues its practice of ignoring any distinction between legal and illegal immigration.

We couldn’t find any study that supported Dobb’s figure.

10. “The illegal aliens in the United States have a crime rate that’s two and a half times that of white non-illegal aliens. In particular, their children, are going to make a huge additional crime problem in the US”

This is false. The “verify” link leads to yet another transcript of Lou Dobbs speaking with Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. This one is dated June 12, 2006, and Rector says, “Hispanics in the United States have a crime rate that’s two and a half times that of white non-Hispanics.”

Rector said Hispanics, not illegal immigrants, as the e-mail alleges. Considering there are 45.4 million Hispanics in the country, and an estimated 11.9 million illegal immigrants, the distinction is notable. Rector’s statistic for all Hispanics is correct, according to a 2003 report from the Justice Department.

11. ” During the year of 2005 there were 4 to 10 MILLION illegal aliens that crossed our Southern Border also, as many as 19,500 illegal aliens from Terrorist Countries. Millions of pounds of drugs, cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana, crossed into the U. S from the Southern border. “

The link goes to a 2006 report written by the Republican staff of the House Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Homeland Security. To start, the “19,500” number of “illegal aliens from Terrorist Countries” is nowhere to be found in this report. In fact, the report estimates the number of illegal immigrants coming over the southern border from countries known to harbor terrorists to be in the “hundreds.” We’ve seen a similar scare tactic used previously in ads advocating for a border fence.

And the 4 million to 10 million statistic is extrapolated using some imprecise reasoning. The committee report figures that since “Border Patrol apprehended approximately 1.2 million illegal aliens” in 2005 and since “Federal law enforcement estimates that 10 percent to 30 percent of illegal aliens are actually apprehended,” that “therefore, in 2005, as many as 10 to 4 million [sic] illegal aliens crossed into the United States.” That simplistic math produces a figure starkly different from more widely accepted estimates. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that in 2005 there were 11.1 million illegal immigrants total, living in the United States. The center also estimated that about 500,000 illegal immigrants a year came to the U.S. from 2005 to 2008.

12. “The National Policy Institute, ‘estimated that the total cost of mass deportation would be between $206 and $230 billion or an average cost of between $41 and $46 billion annually over a five year period.’ “

No, it didn’t. The National Policy Institute, a group that says it promotes the rights of “white Americans,” ironically was citing figures from the liberal Center for American Progress in a report that argued against mass deportation of undocumented workers. CAP said such deportation would cost more per year than the entire Department of Homeland Security budget, illustrating “the false allure of deportation as a response to our broken immigration system.”

13. “In 2006 illegal aliens sent home $45 BILLION in remittances back to their countries of origin.”

This is another bogus figure. The email’s link leads to the original Frosty Wooldridge article, which in turn cites as its source for this figure a link to a Contra-Costa Times article, which is no longer working. Nevertheless, we were able to find a news release from the Inter-American Development Bank stating Latin American immigrants sent $45 billion in remittances in 2006. But that figure applies to all immigrants, including legal residents.

14. “The Dark Side of Illegal Immigration: Nearly One Million Sex Crimes Committed by Illegal Immigrants In The United States.”

Once again, the “verify” link is dead. But a little Internet research found the article cited. An independently published, non-peer-reviewed study did estimate that nearly a million sex crimes have been committed by illegal immigrants over a seven-year period, but it employs some highly creative math and interesting assumptions to get there. The “study” is actually a pretty good case study in bad research.

The author assumes that 2 percent of illegal immigrants are sex offenders after “examining ICE reports and public records,” but does not say how that figure was calculated. A bibliography cites miscellaneous Immigration and Customs Enforcement press releases and media accounts of instances of apprehending illegal immigrants who were sex offenders (seemingly manufacturing a “rate” based on anecdotal evidence). The author then makes no distinction between male and female illegal immigrants when estimating the number that are “sex offenders.”

As we’ve said before, anonymous chain e-mails making dramatic claims are quite likely to be false. And that goes even for those that may seem to cite legitimate sources. This one is yet another good candidate for the “delete” key.

– Justin Bank

Sources

Steven A. Camarota, “Back Where We Started: An Examination of Trends in Immigrant Welfare Use Since Welfare Reform,” Center for Immigration Studies, March 2003.

Camarota, Steven A., “The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget,” Center for Immigration Studies, August 2004.

Immigration and Welfare,” Federation for American Immigration Reform, Oct 2002.

A Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border,” prepared by the Majority Staff of House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Investigations, Nov 2006.

Goyle, Rajeev, “Deporting the Undocumented: A Cost Assessment,” Center for American Progress. 26 July 2005.

Sending Money Home: Leveraging the Development Impact of Remittances,” Inter-American Development Bank.  18 Oct 2006.

Schurman-Kauflin, Dr. Deborah, “The Dark Side of Illegal Immigration: Nearly One Million Sex Crimes Committed by Illegal Immigrants in the United States,” Violent Crimes Institute, 2006.

Martin, Jack, “Breaking the Piggy Bank: How Illegal Immigration is Sending Schools Into the Red,” Federation for American Immigration Reform. June 2005.

Fix, Michael and Passel, Jeffrey, “U.S. Immigration—Trends and Implications for Schools,” Immigration Studies Program, The Urban Institute, 2003.

“Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: 1990-2000,” Office of Policy Planning, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, January 2003.

“Table 169, Current Expenditure Per Pupil in Fall Enrollment in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, by State: 1969-70 to 1999-00,” Digest of Education Statistics 2002, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.