New York State's "Dream Act": The Real Costs

In a time of economic difficulties it is understandable that cost estimates provided by the New York State legislature for their proposed "Dream Act" legislation and those provided by the state's Education Department to support that legislation would err on the low side. It is also understandable that advocates, whether in the state legislature, the state Department of Education, New York State Regents, or like-minded "independent" think tanks would stress the importance of making investments in this group.

To do so, however, they must skip over some difficult facts. The Fiscal Policy Institute's cost-benefit analysis details the economic benefits of a college education, and they are real enough. College-educated jobholders do pay more in taxes to the state than those with just a high school diploma.

Of course some kinds of college degrees, say in the sciences, confer more benefits than a degree in some of the liberal arts. That aside, however, there is another issue. Illegal immigrants are not legally qualified to work.

The Fiscal Policy Institute gently circles around this issue, but doesn't address it. They say:

The economic benefits of college are clear, though for undocumented immigrants they may be less. It is difficult to predict what will happen with federal immigration policy, making it hard to know what conditions today's undocumented college students will face when they enter the labor market. The added earning power of a college degree is so strong, however, that a college degree is undoubtedly a boost to undocumented immigrants even in the absence of federal action.

The Regents memorandum in support of this initiative takes a similarly hopeful approach. In a memorandum of support for the bill, Richard J. Trautwein, deputy commissioner for legal affairs for the state's Education Department, "argues that the cost will be offset, at least in part, by increased income tax revenues 'generated by affording this population the opportunity to complete college and obtain higher-paying jobs', as well as the decline in the amount of money the state would spend in public assistance for these students."

As is so often the case, a strictly economic analysis provides no more than rough guidelines to the real issues involved.

David Kallick, a senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute and director of its Immigration Research Initiative, testified before a Joint Public Hearing on the state Dream Act. He said that the institute had taken up the issue of immigration, "out of concern that an overheated public debate was making it difficult for policymakers to take up issues related to immigration in a calm and serious manner. So I am pleased to be invited today to put these DREAM bills in an economic and fiscal context."

And what information did he provide? Well, for one, "Our studies show that immigrants are already contributing to the economy." Moreover, "The bills under consideration here are about how immigrants could contribute even more." Yes, that's true to some degree, but wouldn't it be more accurate not to lump together illegal and legal immigrants? And wouldn't it be fairer to say that the bill might help some young illegal immigrants finance their educations and that many are already doing so without the aid of these bills? And wouldn't it be consistent with taking a principled stand to note that cost estimates vary widely are likely to be unreliable guides?

Yet, the real rational for Mr. Kallek' support is contained in the following passage from his testimony:

What about the argument that undocumented immigrants are in the country illegally, and should thus be denied all government benefits?

It seems to me that the same logic applies to higher education as for K-12 education. When the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, in 1982, that Texas could not exclude undocumented children from schools, the New York Times editorial board applauded the decision, saying: "It was intolerable that a state so wealthy and so willing to wink at undocumented workers should evade the duty — and ignore the need — to educate all of its children." Indeed, it is not only intolerable, it is also terribly short-sighted to put higher education out of reach of undocumented immigrants, since the economic and fiscal gains of having better-educated residents are far greater than the costs.

There you have it. Mr. Kallek believes there ought to be a constitutional right for illegal immigrants to have a college education paid for by the state.

Astounding, really.

Next: New York State's "Dream Act": Kindly Spare Us the Partisan Hyperbole