Children of undocumented immigrants seem to be the newest target in our ongoing immigration debate, as politicians and pundits rush to take sides on the merits of birthright citizenship. A leading argument against this practice centers on the costs to taxpayers of educating these U.S. citizen children. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed by the Pacific Research Institute's Lance Izumi attempts to set the record straight on these costs; he pledges to present the unbiased facts, "in the interest of more informed discourse." But instead we get a woefully one-sided treatment of the issue.
First, the title, "Educating illegal immigrants is costly," is very (and perhaps intentionally) misleading. The article isn't even about the education of undocumented immigrants, but the U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants. This is a key distinction. Second, the article presents accurate demographic figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, a respected source for immigration statistics, showing that in 2008, the U.S. was home to 5.5 million children of undocumented immigrants. (Today this figure measures 5.1 million.) But then we're warned of the "staggering" costs of their education, $44 billion as calculated by multiplying per pupil spending averages and demographic estimates. The validity of the evidence Izumi presents to support this argument is less important than the thinking at its core. Of the students, he says: "Had their parents not entered the U.S. illegally these children likely wouldn't be in U.S. public schools and wouldn't require taxpayer funding."
It's misguided to consider investing in the education of millions of children born in this country as just another cost of undocumented immigration. These children are Americans and will remain here for their lifetimes; as such, expanding their access to quality public education is a down payment on the future strength of our economy and its workforce. And this analysis fails to consider the contributions these students can make after attending college, finding jobs and becoming taxpaying citizens.
Such magical thinking should not be the basis for smart, effective public policy--yet Izumi urges policymakers to "wrestle with this expensive reality." For some, this amounts to a call for increased immigration enforcement; for others, obviously, this means restricting birthright citizenship. Drawing on the experiences of immigrant children in countries that do not offer this right, the Economist warns:
You end up with a lot of resentful, displaced young people who are permanently differentiated through the education system and feel they have no stake in their countries of birth...Essentially, you get a permanent underclass displaying tenuous allegiance to the country they live in with predictable consequences for law and order and, in some cases, violent extremism.
This reality cannot possibly seem preferable to our current system. Rather than continuing to play the blame game, policymakers need to focus on how to better educate these young Americans and bolster their contributions to this country. But surely it's easier to scapegoat one group of children and their undocumented parents than to come up with workable solutions to the immigration policy mess that afflicts us all.