No, Undocumented Immigrants Aren't Stealing Your Benefits

But they DO help pay for yours.
11/21/2017 10:23 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2017

One of the most effective ploys by those attempting to vilify undocumented immigrants is to assert that those immigrants are stealing benefits from Americans. Donald Trump has deployed this falsehood on multiple occasions both in his speeches and on Twitter long before becoming president. It’s an insinuation quite divorced from reality.

Well into his presidency, Trump has made such claims, such as when he address a crowd of supporters this past June:

“Those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years.”   —  speech in Cedar Rapids, MI, June 21, 2017

And again in July:

“We also believe that those seeking to immigrate into our country should be able to support themselves financially and should not be able to use welfare for themselves or the household for a period of at least five years.”  —  speech in Youngstown, OH, July 25, 2017

And again in August:

“The RAISE Act prevents new migrants and new immigrants from collecting welfare and protects U.S. workers from being displaced. They’re not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare. That doesn’t happen under the RAISE Act. They can’t do that.” — in a news conference in the Roosevelt Room at The White House, Washington, DC, August 2, 2017

Thing is? This wasn’t a new policy Trump was proposing. It’s already the law. Bill Clinton signed such a bill over 20 years earlier in 1996: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, or “IIRIRA.” Congress legislated that not only would undocumented immigrants not receive welfare, but legal immigrants wouldn’t get benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid or money for child assistance until they’ve lived here at least five years and even seven years after their arrival.

What Undocumented Immigrants Receive vs. What They Don’t

To be clear, there are many different types of benefits a resident of the United States can receive. Let’s take a fact-based look at what benefits undocumented immigrants do and do not receive then in the United States.

Here’s a listing of benefits undocumented immigrants expressly do not receive:

  • Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP)

  • Disability, aka Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

  • Food stamps, aka The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

  • Health insurance, aka insurance via the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

  • Medicaid

  • Medicare

  • Social Security

  • Welfare

Here’s what undocumented immigrants may be eligible for:

  • Emergency medical care, including ER visits and Emergency Medicaid

  • Schooling

  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

Let’s hope that overwhelming majority of us can embrace the humanity of these immigrants and assume that — like anyone else who shows up at an ER — the should receive emergency care. Follow-up care? Not so much. Also, Emergency Medicaid accounts for less than 1 percent of the Medicaid budget.

That means that undocumented immigrants receive may receive some (very few) benefits while living in the United States. It’s quite another thing, however, to suggest they’re stealing any benefits from American citizens.

How Undocumented Immigrants Contribute

Any examination of the benefits undocumented immigrants receive would be woefully incomplete without considering what they also contribute.

In reality, immigrants typically pay far more in taxes than they receive in benefits. And that includes undocumented immigrants. Makes sense. Not only do they simply not qualify for many benefits, but undocumented immigrants also tend to keep a low profile and may not seek benefits they possibly could legitimately receive as a result. However, every year millions of undocumented immigrants not only do pay taxes, they even file their tax returns.

According to a 2010 report by the American Immigration Council, undocumented immigrants pay as much as $90 billion in taxes but receive just $5 billion in benefits. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) estimated that in 2010 undocumented immigrants paid as much as $10.6 billion in state and local taxes alone.

In fact, given IRS estimates that some 50-75 percent of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, we could actually reduce deficits by providing those immigrants a path to legal immigration and enabling them all to pay taxes. That’s right. By ensuring so many undocumented immigrants stay in the shadows, we significantly reduce the amount of available taxable income.

For example, a 2007 Congressional Budget Report (CBO) determined that expanding the number of legal immigrants in the United States could increase federal revenues by $48 billion over a decade. Less than half of that would go to covering government services. More than half would result in a surplus. Similarly, in 2013, the Center for American Progress determined that legalizing all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would boost gross domestic product by a staggering $832 billion cumulatively over the subsequent decade.

That broad path to legalization isn’t likely to appear any time soon, of course. Nonetheless, undocumented immigrants already pump a lot of tax money into government programs every year, which they cannot even feasibly benefit from. Yet the American public has been told repeatedly that they’re competing for benefits against these most impoverished of our fellow residents.

What they do contribute specifically? Taxes from undocumented immigrants pay for your social security, for public schools and for local government services.

Let’s take a closer look at how they boost social security income.

A common scenario peddled by the fiercest critics of these immigrants is that they apply for jobs using fake social security numbers in order to score benefits. Problem is that doesn’t work. In fact, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has maintained something called the Earnings Suspense File since 1937. Its purpose is to match unclaimed retirement benefits to people who prove to be valid recipients. Some 340 million forms languish in that file. These mismatched files sometimes result from people mis-entering their social security numbers or from getting married and forgetting to report that they changed their names. Many of them also are the result of undocumented immigrants completing W2s with fake social security numbers.

That dynamic results in their funds being held and kept in the social security pool, which American citizens are much more likely to draw from. So, factually, we’d have an even smaller social security fund for aging Boomers to draw from were it not for undocumented immigrants. As The Atlantic reported, the SSA’s chief actuary Stephen Gross concluded the following in 2013:

We estimate that earnings by unauthorized immigrants result in a net positive effect on Social Security financial status generally, and that this effect contributed roughly $12 billion to the cash flow of the program for 2010.

Furthermore, the SSA estimated that unauthorized immigrants had injected $100 billion into the social security fund over the previous 10 years. And by 2014, Goss told CNNMoney they were paying $15 million per annum into social security. He added that without this money entering the system, Social Security would not have been bringing in enough money to make payouts in 2009.

Now, arguably, it’s neither fair nor just that these immigrants pay into a system they’re unlikely to draw from, but it’s a fact and it stands in contradistinction to the messaging you see coming from Donald Trump and other quarters.

A bitter irony? This dynamic resulted after a crackdown on undocumented immigrants in 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which penalized employers for hiring them.

Exaggerating Immigrant Access to Benefits

Finally, let’s note that some prominent organizations exaggerate the level to which undocumented immigrants access benefits by misrepresenting the available data.

Groups like the innocuously named Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) circulate figures on this subject which seem accurate at first blush but fail to take the full picture into account. For example, CIS counts entire households with an immigrant father and an American mother receiving welfare as immigrant families. They count American-born children receiving subsidized lunches as living in immigrant welfare families. In other words, they skew data to make it look both like more immigrants are receiving welfare than actually are and that they’re receiving more in welfare than they actually are.

Repeatedly, in fact, CIS has been criticized for releasing poorly crafted and misleading reports. Frankly, such organizations depend on people’s ignorance on the subject to buttress their arguments and to reinforce people’s prejudices.

We owe it to these hard-working immigrants to examine honestly how they contribute to our society. Then we can enable them to contribute further and to benefit more justly from a system they’re already paying into.

This piece first appeared on Medium.com

Follow Robert Stribley on Twitter.

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