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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Immigration Plan

Republican Donald Trump’s immigration plan includes several statements that stray from the facts.

  • He said “birthright citizenship” is the “biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” Actually, research indicates the biggest draw is economic opportunity.
  • He claimed taxpayers have paid “hundreds of billions” in health care, education, welfare and more for illegal immigration from Mexico. But the Congressional Budget Office found the net financial impact of illegal immigration on state and local budgets was “most likely modest.”
  • Trump says the “incarcerated alien population” was responsible for “3 million arrests.” The 2011 report he cites says there were 1.7 million arrests, including some that didn’t result in convictions or even prosecutions.
  • He said border crossing cards and NAFTA visas are “major” sources of visa overstays, but we could find no data to support this. The most recent estimate showed border crossing cards made up 4 percent to 12 percent of those who violated the terms of a legal entry. And very few NAFTA visas are issued in comparison with other visas.

Birthright Citizenship

Trump released his plan in mid-August, calling for a wall to be built across the southern U.S. border (paid for by Mexico) and other measures to step up enforcement and limit immigration, both illegal and legal. Among the proposals: He says he wants to “end birthright citizenship,” saying it “remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” That’s contradicted by research that shows jobs and economic opportunity are the biggest draws for those coming to the U.S. illegally.

Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank, told us that research has consistently found that economic factors are the big determinants of illegal immigration. “If you read a few hundred academic articles, I don’t think you’ll find one that identifies the desire to have children in the U.S. … as a significant factor in people’s thinking,” he said.

Birthright citizenship refers to the fact that a child born on U.S. soil is a U.S. citizen under the Constitution, even if both of the parents are not in the country legally. The parents still aren’t citizens and can’t be sponsored for a green card by their child until that child is 21.

Latino immigrants — both legal and illegal — didn’t cite that as a reason for coming to the U.S. when the Pew Research Center polled them in 2011. Instead, 55 percent said “economic opportunities” brought them to the United States. Twenty-four percent cited “family reasons.” The poll didn’t include more detail on what exactly those “family reasons” were; Rosenblum said some reuniting with family members come to the U.S. illegally because of the long wait times for family visas.

There is ample evidence that the health of the U.S. economy, and therefore the availability of jobs, is what primarily drives immigration. The number of immigrants with illegal status has remained around 11.3 million for the past five years, according to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends project, a period of slow economic recovery. The center, a self-described “fact tank” that provides research and public opinion polling, notes that this population “dropped sharply during the Great Recession of 2007-09, mainly because of a decrease in immigration from Mexico.”

The Migration Policy Institute has similar estimates on the number of immigrants here illegally, and its figures, too, show an ebb and flow with the economy. “During the 1990s, the unauthorized population rose substantially, doubling from 3.5 million to 7 million. It continued to increase during the 2000s, reaching a peak of 12.2 million in 2007, then fell to 11 million during and after the recession,” the institute said in an August 2015 report.

Longtime historical trends for both legal and illegal immigration also reflect what has happened in the economy. We spoke with Audrey Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, about this last year, and she told us the trend in the percentage of foreign-born living in the U.S. largely mirrors job opportunities. The percentage of the population that was foreign-born was above 10 percent from 1860 to 1930, and then again from 2000 to 2010. The industrial revolution and high economic growth before the recent recession were the reasons, she said. The job sectors are very different, “but the root causes of immigration are very similar,” Singer said.

If the “biggest magnet for illegal immigration” was the ability to get citizenship for a child born here, we would expect to see as many, if not more, women than men among those living in the country illegally. But Pew’s Hispanic Trends project has found that men outnumber women among this population in child-bearing age groups.

There has been an increase in the percentage of those here illegally living with U.S.-born children, going from 30 percent in 2000 to 38 percent in 2012. However, Pew attributes that to a sizable increase in the share who have lived in the U.S. long-term. In 2000, 35 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults had lived in the country for 10 years or more; in 2012, that share was 62 percent.

“There’s a lot of work showing that’s partly the changing nature of border enforcement,” Rosenblum says of an increase in U.S.-born children over the last few decades. Immigrants used to come for short periods of time and return home — as in seasonal workers — but as it has become more difficult to cross the border, “that has faded in favor of permanent settlement.” There have been more families in the country illegally, too, he says as labor markets have expanded for women.

Emily Ryo, an assistant professor of law and sociology at the University of Southern California, conducts research on illegal immigration and has specifically examined why migrants decide to cross the border illegally. She told us via email that while much of her research focuses on male migrants, she also has interviewed females. “None of those female migrants have ever mentioned the desire for birthright citizenship for their children as the reason for their decision to migrate to the U.S.,” she said. “[I]nstead, lack of employment opportunities and/or violence in their home communities, and family reunification have been the most frequently cited reasons among my research subjects.”

Ryo says that crossing the border is “extremely dangerous,” and more so for women. “In light of this, at least for average single female migrants, I think it would take an extremely forward-looking individual to say: I am going to take those enormous risks for the chance that I will one day meet a man and have a child in the U.S. so that the child will be a U.S. citizen.”

Immigration Costs

Trump’s plan says the cost for the U.S. of illegal immigration from Mexico has been “extraordinary.” Taxpayers “have been asked to pick up hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, housing costs, education costs, welfare costs, etc.” But nonpartisan studies have estimated a modest impact of illegal immigration on state and local budgets, and a net positive impact on the federal budget.

There have been few studies on this topic, and few attempts to put a number on the cost of illegal immigration. A 2007 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that the net impact on state and local budgets was “most likely modest.” A 1997 report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found most immigrants — both legal and illegal — would have a net positive effect on government budgets over the immigrants’ lifetimes, but some states, such as California, would face a net cost over the long-term.

We wrote about the cost to federal, state and local governments of illegal immigration in 2009, when an error-riddled chain email was circulating that claimed illegal immigration cost $338.3 billion per year. A list of supposed costs in the email didn’t even add up to that amount. More important, the few published estimates that existed were far lower.

CBO’s 2007 report looked at 29 reports on state and local costs published over 15 years and concluded that while it is “difficult to obtain precise estimates of the net impact of the unauthorized population on state and local budgets,” the impact “is most likely modest.” CBO didn’t put a number on such costs nationwide, saying: “No agreement exists as to the size of, or even the best way of measuring, that cost on a national level.”

The report said that “state and local governments bear much of the cost of providing certain public services — especially services related to education, health care, and law enforcement — to individuals residing in their jurisdictions.”

Rosenblum, at the Migration Policy Institute, told us that there’s likely a net benefit at the federal level, since immigrants here illegally would pay more in federal taxes than they would receive in federal benefits. Many pay payroll taxes, including Social Security taxes that such immigrants can’t then collect. The chief actuary of the Social Security Administration estimated that those in the country illegally contributed a net $12 billion to Social Security’s cash flow for 2010.

But there’s likely a net state and local cost, Rosenblum says, because, as CBO explained, immigrants living in the country illegally consume more in services, than they pay in state and local taxes. The 1997 National Research Council study found exactly that.

The study determined that on an annual basis, the net fiscal national cost imposed by all immigrant-headed households on native households was $14.77 billion (based on New Jersey’s budget) to $20.16 billion (based on California’s). See table 6.5. Immigrants from Latin America, however, were the only ones to contribute a negative net annual fiscal impact, which offset the positive net annual impacts of Canadians, Europeans, Asians and other immigrants. Those figures, of course, are based on all of the foreign-born, whether citizens, legal residents or immigrants in the country illegally.

The NRC report cautioned against a “simplistic use” of this annual estimate, noting that the demographics of the immigrant population would change over time, and, among other factors, children who were consuming services then would grow up to be tax-paying adults. Over the long-run, and including the contribution of descendants, the NRC report found an overall positive impact by immigrants, an average net $80,000 for an immigrant over his or her lifetime (in 1996 dollars). “Under most scenarios, the long-run fiscal impact is strongly positive at the federal level, but substantially negative at the state and local level. The federal impact is shared evenly across the population, but these negative state and local impacts are concentrated in the few states that receive most of the immigrants,” the report said.

We asked Trump’s campaign for his source, but we haven’t received it. He could be referring to a 2010 study by the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, which estimated that the net cost of illegal immigration on the federal and state and local levels to be $99 billion a year. That figure includes costs associated with the U.S.-born children (and therefore U.S. citizens) of parents with illegal status, such as public school education costs and health care. Education makes up most — 59 percent — of FAIR’s estimate for state and local costs.

The American Immigration Council, whose mission is to encourage “immigrant integration,” criticized FAIR’s report, saying that “over half of FAIR’s cost estimate consists of educational and healthcare expenditures for the children of unauthorized immigrants, of whom nearly three-quarters are native-born U.S. citizens.” FAIR doesn’t then estimate state and federal tax revenue from such U.S.-born children who are adults.

It also includes costs for immigration enforcement and prosecution, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s $2.5 billion budget for its Office of Detention and Removal.

Immigrants and Crime

The Trump immigration plan also falsely claims that a government report in 2011 found the “incarcerated alien population” was responsible for “3 million arrests.” The number is actually 1.7 million, and it includes some arrests that did not result in convictions.

Trump immigration plan, August: In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that there were a shocking 3 million arrests attached to the incarcerated alien population, including tens of thousands of violent beatings, rapes and murders.

The “3 million arrests” figure cited in Trump’s plan links to a conservative blog post about a 2011 GAO report on “criminal aliens,” who are defined as “noncitizens convicted of crimes while in this country legally or illegally.” So, the report isn’t just about people living in the U.S. illegally.

The GAO analyzed a random sample of 1,000 criminal aliens and their arrest records from August 1955 to April 2010. “Based on our random sample of 1,000 criminal aliens, we estimate that our study population of about 249,000 criminal aliens were arrested about 1.7 million times, averaging about 7 arrests per criminal alien, slightly lower than the 8 arrests per criminal alien we reported in 2005,” the report said.

We should note that the report says that the total “alien population” — that is, non-U.S. citizens — was 25.3 million in fiscal year 2009.

Those 1.7 million arrests did not all result in criminal convictions or even prosecutions. As the report says, “An arrest does not necessarily result in prosecution or a conviction.”

So where did Trump’s campaign get “3 million arrests”?

The 3 million figure is actually 2.9 million, and it refers to the number of “arrest offenses” — estimated offenses alleged to have been committed by the study population of 249,000 criminal aliens. About a third of those alleged offenses were immigration offenses (529,859) and traffic violations (404,788).

As for the “tens of thousands” of “violent beatings, rapes and murders” cited by the Trump campaign, the GAO report says the estimated number of assaults (213,047), sex offenses (69,929) and homicides (25,064) accounted for 10 percent of the alleged 2.9 million offenses. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points, so the number of estimated rape and murder offenses is within the margin of error.

Trump’s plan implies that immigrants, living here both legally and illegally, are more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens. But the report does not say that. It makes no comparison of crimes committed by immigrants to crimes committed by U.S. citizens.

Bianca Bersani, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Massachusetts, did make such a comparison in 2012 research paper published in Justice Quarterly and concluded that “immigrants, regardless of generational status, pose no greater criminal threat than the general native-born population.”

Bersani compared crime data of first- and second-generation immigrants with the crime data of native U.S. citizens. She writes, “Foreign-born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course. Moreover, it appears that by the second generation, immigrants have simply caught up to their native-born counterparts in respect to their offending.”

Visa Overstays

Trump said that until Mexico paid for a wall across the southern border, he would, among other measures, increase fees on border crossing cards issued to Mexicans and NAFTA worker visas from Mexico, both of which he called a “major source of visa overstays.” But we could find no evidence that these were major sources of overstays.

Robert Warren, a senior visiting fellow with the Center for Migration Studies and former director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s statistics division, has studied and written about unauthorized immigration for decades. He told us he doesn’t have any data on overstays due to border crossing cards or NAFTA visas. “I’m pretty certain of one thing, though,” he wrote in an email, “nobody else has any data on this, including DHS, Donald Trump, or his staff.”

A 2014 Congressional Research Service report said that “reliable estimates of the number of nonimmigrant overstays are not available,” because the Department of Homeland Security “does not have reliable data on emigration and nonimmigrant departures.” Indeed, when we contacted DHS’ Office of Immigration Statistics, we were told that it didn’t have any statistics on visa overstays.

However, the scant research that does exist suggests that border crossing cards have not been a major source of visa overstays in the past. That may have changed in recent years, but there’s no data to show it. With NAFTA work visas, so few are issued each year in comparison with other visas, it’s doubtful they would be a major source of overstays.

Border crossing cards are valid for 10 years after being issued, except for some children under the age of 15. They are considered the same as a B1/B2 visitor’s visa and are issued to those with Mexican citizenship and residency, a Mexican passport, and demonstrated ties to Mexico that would compel them to return. The fee is $160 for those 15 and over. NAFTA professional work visas, which have the same fee amount, are issued to Canadian or Mexican citizens with prearranged employment in certain NAFTA professions in the United States.

The best, and most recent, estimate on overstays appears to be a 2006 Pew Research Center fact sheet. In 2010, John Morton, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, cited in congressional testimony Pew’s 2006 estimates, and a footnote to his testimony said that the Office of Immigration Statistics “agrees the Pew analysis is the best existing estimate on the visa overstay population.” The Pew Research Center told us that it did not have a more recent report.

Pew’s 2006 fact sheet said: “As much as 45% of the total unauthorized migrant population entered the country with visas that allowed them to visit or reside in the U.S. for a limited amount of time.” Pew put the number of visa overstays, mostly for tourist or business visas, it said, at 4 million to 5.5 million for 2005. It said that those violating the terms of border crossing cards was another 250,000 to 500,000 people.

All told that would make violators of border crossing cards 4 percent to 12 percent of all those who entered legally but now reside illegally in the U.S. At the time, Pew estimated the total unauthorized population at 11.5 million to 12 million, which is slightly larger than Pew’s current estimate of 11.3 million for 2014.

That would indicate that the border crossing card is not a major source of visa overstays. These numbers are quite dated, but they are the best we have.

The conservative immigration group FAIR cites a congressional study from the 1980s on its website. That study, which surveyed immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who were able to apply for legal status under a 1986 immigration law, found just 3 percent of them had violated the terms of a border crossing card. FAIR also notes that “there are no reliable data” on visa overstays.

Trump said that the U.S. issues “about 1 million [border crossing cards] to Mexican nationals each year,” and that’s accurate. State Department figures show more than 1 million border crossing cards were issued annually from 2011 through 2014, with 1.2 million being issued last year. That represents most of the visas that were issued from offices in Mexico: The total number of visas issued for 2014 in Mexico was 1,484,180, according to the State Department.

The Migration Policy Institute’s Rosenblum told us the problem with border crossing cards wasn’t technically overstays but document fraud — people will use someone else’s card to cross the border. But we “don’t know exactly how big that problem is.” Rosenblum said that the conventional wisdom was that tourist visas were a big share of overstays, and that overstayers were more likely to be non-Mexicans — Europeans, Asians and South Americans.

As for NAFTA visas, not many are issued in comparison with other visas. In 2014, a total of 18,578 NAFTA professional visas were issued, which would include those to both Mexican and Canadian citizens. (In 2010, the number was only about 6,000.) There were a total of 9.9 million visas issued in 2014, with the largest category by far being B1/B2 tourist and business visas (6.3 million), followed by border crossing cards. This makes it highly doubtful that the small number of NAFTA visas issued would then be a “major source” of visa overstays, as Trump claimed. But, as we’ve explained, we do not have detailed or recent enough data to precisely determine the exact sources of visa overstays.

The annual number of visa overstays may have dropped in recent years. The 2014 CRS report highlighted 2013 studies, conducted by Robert Warren and University of Minnesota sociology professor John Robert Warren, which found that the annual number of visa overstays from 2000 to 2009 fell 73 percent, from 705,000 per year to 190,000 per year. They cautioned, however, that these were estimates and “[n]o direct information” on overstays was available.

— Lori Robertson and Eugene Kiely, with D’Angelo Gore