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Kathy Ko Chin Headshot

Want to Fix Our Immigration System? Start With the Facts

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The immigration game is on in Washington and half-truths, faulty premises and omissions have started coming out of the woodwork. With reform efforts in full swing, it has become increasingly clear that there are some who will do anything to stop the bill in its tracks. The momentum is palpable -- historic even -- as advocates, minority and immigrant communities and leaders on both sides of the aisle work swiftly to fix our outdated system.

Last week the Heritage Foundation released its much-anticipated report amid condemnation and pre-emptive criticism from other conservative groups arguing, in a nutshell, that undocumented immigrants drain our nation in terms of resources and programs, taking more out than they contribute. Unfortunately, Heritage is not alone in its claims. Senator Jeff Sessions released a series of factsheets that suggest undocumented immigrants burden our public benefits systems and, if legalized, would abuse the system. However, the ugly picture that has been painted is totally false.

If we are truly committed to fixing our immigration system -- and indeed the strong bipartisan support overwhelmingly suggests so -- we would be wise to not let anti-immigrant rhetoric cloud the fact that immigrants make significant economic contributions to our nation.

Immigrants contribute to, not take, from our economy. Economic data conclusively shows that immigrants boost our nation fiscally and add to our labor force. In 2010, undocumented immigrants pumped $13 billion in taxes into the economy, producing a net gain to our Social Security system. Heritage's own report from 2006 states that "the argument that immigrants harm the economy should be dismissed out of hand" -- a pretty strong statement and one that both Democrats and Republicans agree with.

Yet, in its recent report, Heritage asserts that what immigrants receive in government programs far outweighs their contributions to the system. Similarly, Sessions argues that undocumented immigrants, if legalized, will massively draw down on federal programs. These claims are grounded in a number of faulty premises, not fact.

First, they assume that immigrants are heavy users of government benefits, an assertion that is flatly contradicted by data. The libertarian Cato Institute reports that in fact, the cost of providing public benefits to immigrants is "substantially less" than for native-born Americans. Looking at Medicaid usage alone, non-citizen's costs are an estimated 42 percent lower than for citizen adults, and for children, the savings are even greater as immigrant children cost an estimated 66 percent less than citizen children. Part of the reason for these lower expenditures is that immigrants tend to be younger and healthier than native-born Americans.

Second, restrictive federal laws also largely keep immigrants from qualifying for federal programs. Undocumented immigrants are largely excluded from federal benefits, despite paying into the system. Under the Senate immigration bill, even after the newly legalized wait 10 years, compensate for back taxes and pay a fine, they will still not be eligible for most federal benefits for at least five additional years or more. This is the harsh reality facing many immigrants in spite of the fact that, like all Americans, they will continue to pay into the tax system to support federal programs.

Access to health benefits is so restrictive that undocumented immigrants are blocked from participating in the health reform law's new private marketplaces, even if they wish to take responsibility for their health and purchase coverage with their own money. This is an exclusion that is not only bad public policy; it does not make fiscal sense.

Yet examining the Heritage report and Senator Session's claims, one could be forgiven for not realizing these facts. Even if some of the newly legalized were to enroll in benefits programs after contributing into the system for more than a decade, the fact remains that providing a pathway to citizenship will generate a huge contribution to our nation's GDP in terms of economic mobility, increased wages and purchasing power. And despite Senator Session's claims to the contrary, there is nothing to suggest -- and the data available contradicts this -- that legal immigrants would massively enroll in government programs.

This week the strong bipartisan effort to fix our broken immigration system will continue full speed ahead. Let's hope the facts prevail and we develop a system that is fair and workable, and not one based on myths and phony math.