The debate over immigration has become one of America's most heated. In a new report published by the Center for Immigration Studies, we provide a detailed picture of the nation's immigrant population. Our conclusions will probably not surprise most Californians: First, legal and illegal immigration is at record levels. Second, immigrants are generally hardworking, yet they create enormous strains on social services. Why? Put simply, many are uneducated.
Looking first at the raw numbers, the Census Bureau data we analyzed showed that the nation's immigrant population (legal and illegal) reached nearly 38 million in March of this year. This is the highest number in the nation's history. No nation has ever attempted to incorporate 38 million newcomers into its society. As a share of the population, one in eight U.S. residents is now an immigrant (legal and illegal), the highest level in 80 years. About one-third of immigrants are illegal aliens. Moreover, 1.5 million new immigrants (legal and illegal) continue to arrive each year.
We found that immigration has a very large effect on the low-skilled labor market. Immigrants comprise between one-fourth and one-third of workers in cleaning, construction and food service occupations. Roughly half of these immigrant workers are estimated to be illegal immigrants. In contrast, just 9 percent of journalists and 6 percent of lawyers are immigrants, and almost none are illegal immigrants. This partly explains why the argument that "immigrants only do jobs Americans don't want" is widely accepted in the media and among elites in general. But the fact is, the overwhelming majority of low-wage jobs are done by less-educated native-born Americans, not immigrants.
Unemployment and non-work has grown significantly among less-educated Americans. In 2007 there were more than 22 million adult natives (18 to 64 years of age) with no education beyond high school either unemployed or not in the labor market. Wages and benefits for such workers have also generally stagnated or declined in recent years. Most Americans do not face significant job competition from immigrants, but those who do are generally the poorest and most vulnerable.
The low-education level of many immigrants not only means that they compete with less-educated natives, it is the primary reason so many immigrants live in or near poverty, lack health insurance and use the welfare system. This is true even though a larger share of immigrant households compared to native households have at least one worker. If this problem was put on a bumper sticker it would read: "There's a high cost to cheap labor."
In California, immigrants and their young children comprise nearly 60 percent of the uninsured. Illegals alone are 27 percent. The latest data also show that almost half of those in the state's public schools are either immigrants or the child of an immigrant. We also found that 39 percent of immigrant-headed households in the state used at least one major welfare program, twice the rate for native households.
Because 38 percent of adult immigrants in California have not completed high school, six times the rate for natives, even immigrants who work full time often end up poor, lacking health insurance and accessing social services. Our welfare system, particularly food assistance, and Medicaid/Medi-Cal are geared to help low-income workers with children, which describes a very large share of immigrants.
We can see just how important education is to economic success in two different ways. First, we found that immigrants with a college degree have incomes and use of social services similar to natives. Second, when we look at legal immigrants who have very little education we found that their rates of poverty and welfare use are as high or higher than illegal immigrants. For example, we found that 56 percent of households headed by a legal immigrant who lacked a high school diploma used at least one major welfare program, triple the rate for natives. This is important because an estimated 57 percent of illegal immigrants have not completed high school. Therefore, legalization would not solve the problem of low income and heavy use of social services.
Immigrant use of social services might not be a problem if they generally paid more in taxes than native-born Americans. But the median income of immigrant households is 21 percent lower in California than that of native households, and immigrant households are 36 percent larger on average. The household is the primary unit by which taxes are assessed and services paid. This means immigrants will tend to pay less in taxes than natives and tend to use more in services. This is not the same as saying immigrants do not pay taxes. In fact, even illegal immigrants pay some taxes. However, it does mean they will be a fiscal drain.
If we want to avoid these problems we are going to have to reduce the number of legal immigrants allowed in who have relatively little education. We are also going to have to enforce the law and cause illegal immigrants to go home. Of course, the immigrants themselves clearly benefit by coming to America. And this could be used to justify continuing current policy. But the latest data show that less-educated American workers, public schools, health care providers and taxpayers will feel the effects if we continue down our present path.
Steven Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies.