Sep 052013

As the US Congress debates new immigration reform legislation there is considerable confusion concerning the fiscal impact of immigrants. One side argues that immigrants pay relatively little in taxes and absorb costly benefits in terms of public health, education, welfare, etc. Others note that immigrants often pay significant amounts in taxes and get little back in terms of benefits. Obviously, it depends on the immigrant and perhaps on their legal status.

OECD-migrationIn June 2013, the OECD published “International Migration Outlook,” a study on the budgetary impacts of immigrants to OECD countries. (OECD countries Mexico and 29 other mostly rich and mainly European countries). The study compares native-born with foreign-born residents, some of whom may have already become citizens. The study suggests that immigrants may have a slightly positive impact on fiscal budgets. The average for all OECD countries was 0.3% of GDP; the comparable figure for the USA was 0.03%.

Immigrants tend to have lower incomes, pay a bit less in taxes, but receive less in benefits. They tend to be younger and thus receive less in public health benefits. If they have children, they receive considerable education benefits. Obviously these are gross generalizations as some immigrants are highly paid executives and scientists, who pay significant taxes, while others may work as domestics or laborers, paying far less in taxes. Given that many public costs, including defense and debt service, are very hard to allocate to migrants versus native-born, the study suggests that immigration appears to be neither a drain nor a gain on fiscal budgets.

A big issue in the USA is the specific impact of Mexican immigrants on the fiscal budget, particularly the impacts of undocumented immigrants. Many legal immigrants from Mexico are family members joining their relatives. They may or may not be employed and thus may not pay income taxes. On the other hand, virtually all illegal immigrants seek employment. Furthermore, many obtain formal sector jobs by using fake Social Security cards or “Individual Tax Identification Numbers.” Their employers deduct federal and state income tax from their paychecks and forward these funds to government tax agencies.

Undocumented immigrants rarely file tax returns and thus very rarely receive the tax refunds to which they might otherwise be entitled. All immigrants pay considerable amounts in gasoline and sales taxes as well as property taxes, either directly or indirectly as part of their rent. Given that most illegal immigrants are rather young, relatively healthy and without children, they may have only a small impact on public education and health expenses. Their children are often born in the US, are US citizens, and should not be considered immigrants. It appears that undocumented immigrants might be paying more into the public coffers than they receive in benefits. A closer look at the data may provide some answers.

A 2007 study by the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) entitled “The Impact of Unauthorized Immigrants on the Budgets of State and Local Governments” directly addressed this issue. The study notes that at the Federal level roughly 50% of illegal immigrants pay income or payroll taxes, which include Medicare taxes. But they generally are excluded from such Federal benefits as Social Security pensions, Medicare and Medicaid (other than emergency services), Food Stamps, and Assistance to Needy Families. The data suggest that in general illegal immigrants usually pay more in federal taxes than they receive in benefits. On the other hand, a number of court cases mandate that state and local governments cannot withhold from illegal immigrants certain services such as education, selected health care, or law enforcement. Many illegal immigrant children do not speak English; therefore their education may be more costly.

In assessing the fiscal impact on state and local government budget, the CBO analyzed 29 reports published since 1990. The study noted that undertaking such an analysis is very challenging and involves many big assumptions. Still the CBO analysis concluded that the relatively small amount spent by state and local governments on services for illegal immigrants is not fully offset by the even smaller amount of tax revenues collected from them including federal revenues they may receive for this purpose.

In conclusion, available research suggests that the impact of immigrants on public budgets is not very clear. With respect to all immigrants, there appears to a slight positive fiscal impact according to a recent OECD study. The older CBO analysis indicates that undocumented immigrants appear to have a positive impact of the federal budget, but a negative fiscal impact for state and local governments. Of course, the impact varies enormously among migrants depending on their incomes, tax brackets, consumption patterns and needs.

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