Here’s Proof That Immigrants Are Not a Drain on the Safety Net

A leaked draft of a potential executive order suggests that the Trump administration may not be done with immigration.
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Demonstrators protest in response Donald Trump’s executive order on January 31st, 2017, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Demonstrators protest in response Donald Trump’s executive order on January 31st, 2017, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Late yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is considering several additional executive orders on immigration. One, the “Executive Order on Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs,” seeks to sharply curtail employment opportunities in the United States for both undocumented immigrants and immigrants with legal work visas. “The unlawful employment of aliens has had a devastating impact on the wages and jobs of American workers, especially low-skilled, teenage, and African-American and Hispanic workers,” the order states.

As I’ve written before, there’s a bit of an economic debate over how immigration has affected low-skill American workers (defined as those without a high school degree). Economists, however, agree that the net effects of immigration on the American economy are overwhelmingly positive — and the effects of mass deportations of the type President Donald Trump promised during the campaign would be especially bad for some industries.

The second executive order, “The Executive Order on Protecting Taxpayer Resources by Ensuring Our Immigration Laws Promote Accountability and Responsibility,” seeks to bar immigrants from taking advantage of social safety-net programs. “Our country’s immigration laws are designed to protect American taxpayers and promote immigrant self-sufficiency,” the order reads. “Yet households headed by aliens (legal and illegal) are much more likely than households headed by native-born citizens to use federal means-tested benefits.”

The U.S. already takes steps to “protect American taxpayers.” Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for safety-net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And since the welfare reforms of 1996, legal permanent residents are generally not eligible for safety-net benefits until they’ve been living in this country for at least five years. The U.S. also bars immigrants who are likely to become a “public charge” (currently defined as someone who might use federal cash benefits, but not in-kind benefits like Medicaid).

There’s very little evidence to suggest immigrants participate in the safety net at higher rates than native-born Americans of similar income levels.

This draft order takes rules of this sort even further. Legal immigrants who are deemed likely to use any kind of benefit (including Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program) would be barred from the U.S., and could be deported if they received any benefits, and American citizens sponsoring immigrants who received such benefits could be required to reimburse the federal government. The order also proposes a rule that would bar undocumented immigrants from claiming the Child Tax Credit, even if their children are U.S. citizens. Finally, there’s language requiring federal agencies to report on how much money they spend on refugee resettlement programs, safety net benefits for immigrants, benefits for “households headed by illegal aliens,” and so forth.

There’s very little evidence to suggest immigrants participate in the safety net at higher rates than native-born Americans of similar income levels. In a 2011 paper published by the Russell Sage Foundation, economists Marianne Bitler and Hilary Hoynes found that “immigrants generally participate in the safety net at lower rates than natives once we restrict ourselves to comparisons within the set of lower‐income families.”

There’s also a proposal in Trump’s order to require the Council of Economic Advisers to “provide a report on the impact of low-skilled immigrant workers on the long-term solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund.” At the moment, undocumented (primarily low-skill) workers subsidize the trust funds, to the tune of about $12 billion a year, because they pay into the system but are ineligible to receive benefits — so any efforts to make it more difficult for those immigrants to work in the U.S. would actually have negative effects on the finances of Social Security. And while the economics of legal, low-skill immigration and Social Security are a bit more nuanced, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bipartisan immigration reforms proposed back in 2013 would reduce the overall federal budget deficit by $175 billion in the first 10 years after implementation, and by over $700 billion in the second 10 years.

These orders, which paint undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and even refugees as solely a drain on the U.S.’s coffers—and ignore the myriad ways immigrants contribute to the American economy—may play well with the president’s base, but they’re not based on evidence.

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