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What Will Immigration Laws Actually Do?

Laws aimed at undocumented immigrants have wide-ranging effects on everybody, regardless of documentation status.
A Mexican immigrant walks along the U.S.-Mexico border after being deported from Arizona to Nogales, Mexico, on July 27, 2010. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

A Mexican immigrant walks along the U.S.-Mexico border after being deported from Arizona to Nogales, Mexico, on July 27, 2010. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

In 1990, there were 3.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. By 2014, that number had more than tripled, to 11.3 million. In response, state politicians have enacted a flurry of laws, including more than 200 in 2015 alone. What has been the effect of all this activity? A new report tries to provide an answer.

The report, from the non-profit think tank the RAND Corporation, analyzes past research on the consequences of America's latest state-specific immigration laws. (Congress has been notably inert on immigration reform, leaving immigrants' lives basically up to the states.) The report finds that most immigration laws create winners and losers throughout society, affecting not only undocumented immigrants, but also citizens and documented immigrants. In some families, for example, while the children are citizens, the parents remain undocumented. A law that keeps undocumented immigrants from accessing public services, such as food assistance or health-insurance subsidies, might also keep the kids from getting those services, even though they're indeed entitled to them.

"Part of our goal was to be able to point out these laws can affect many people beyond the targeted ones," says Lynn Karoly, a RAND economist who co-authored the report with her colleague, Francisco Perez-Acre. "There can be effects throughout the economy."

Below, Pacific Standard looks at RAND's analysis of some of the best-known—and most controversial—immigration laws.


Twenty states allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state schools so long as they meet the usual academic and residency requirements. This is a popular law because it's commonly thought that investing in in-state colleges helps the state economy, Karoly says.

So far, the research shows that offering unauthorized immigrants in-state tuition doesn't affect the number of authorized immigrants and citizens who attend college. In other words, the unauthorized students don't appear to crowd out their citizen and authorized peers. This may change in the future, however, if more unauthorized immigrants attend college, according to Karoly.


Another popular state-level immigrant-related law is the requirement that employers perform a check of any potential employees in the federal work-eligibility database, called E-Verify. Presumably, people support such legislation because they think it will help "save jobs" for documented immigrant and citizen workers. They might be wrong. Two recent studies found Arizona's E-Verify law depressed the entire labor market for workers with low education, resulting in fewer jobs for all. Those who remained employed had higher wages, however.


There's lots of past research on whether the heavy presence of immigrants increases crime in a given neighborhood. "The evidence from the studies with the most rigorous designs to capture causal relationships consistently find no statistically significant or policy relevant relationship" between immigrants and crime, Karoly and Perez-Acre write in their report. Karoly explains: "That's not to say that you couldn't find examples of unauthorized immigrants committing crimes, but the native population also commits crime." And everybody tends to commit crimes at the same rates, regardless of citizenship status.


Has all this science affected politicians at all? Apparently not. Karoly and Perez-Acre found only two states—California and Maryland—had run cost-benefit analyses on their policies. Karoly argues it's time more states follow these states' lead. "What I advocate for is undertaking the kind of analyses that give you that full picture of winners and losers," she says. From there, voters can decide what balance they think is fair, or develop policies to aid those who bear the burden of new laws.