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Research Shows Immigrants Are Not a Drain on U.S. Resources

The Trump administration wants to keep out immigrants who burden the American taxpayer. How big is that burden really?
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Central American immigrant families depart Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, pending future immigration court hearings, on June 11th, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

Central American immigrant families depart Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, pending future immigration court hearings, on June 11th, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

The Department of Homeland Security announced a proposed rule on Friday that would penalize immigrants seeking permanent status who use public benefit programs such as food assistance and housing vouchers. Under the new policy, those who seek financial help could risk losing their chance at a green card.

Already, the federal government can deny permanent resident status or admission to the United States to immigrants deemed a "public charge"—dependent on cash benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This new rule would expand that definition to include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 housing vouchers, and other programs that millions of low-income immigrants rely on, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

In its announcement, DHS billed this expansion as a protective measure, intended to weed out those who cannot support themselves. "This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that  [those seeking to immigrate] are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers," DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement.

However, research shows that immigrants are far less likely to burden the federal government than native-born Americans; if anything, they bolster it. Organizations with anti-immigration agendas, which have undoubtedly influenced the Trump administration, "have their own ways of slicing and dicing the data," says Gabrielle Lessard, senior policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. Here's what the data says about immigrants and federal benefit programs.

  • A 2018 review of all studies published on this issue since 2000 found that immigrants' health-care spending equaled as little as one-half that of United States-born people; moreover, they made larger out-of-pocket payments, while costing insurance providers less. "Overall, immigrants almost certainly paid more toward medical expenses than they withdrew, providing a low-risk pool that subsidized the public and private health insurance markets," the reviewers wrote in the International Journal of Health Services.
  • According to an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, immigrants who cluster in states like California do not present a disproportionate drain on that region's resources. This contradicts the common perception known as "welfare migration": that immigrants move in order to take advantage of public aid programs.
  • New research on immigration in Europe found that "migration shocks"—unexpected inflows of large numbers of people—can have immediate positive effects on a nation's economy, which remain significant for at least two years; among migrants not seeking asylum, the new tax revenue outweighs any perceived burden.

As the proposed rule looms, researchers and agencies have documented a "chilling effect," showing that the Trump administration's first draft—leaked earlier this year—has led to a drop in use of public benefits among immigrant families who are not actually at risk under the rule, but still fear repercussions. The administration estimates the new rule will impact 382,000 people a year, according to the New York Times. But advocates say many more immigrant families—who are already taking very little from the government—will pay the cost.