Tallahassee Democrat, January 24, 2022
After President Biden revoked Trump-era security policies at the southern border, the resulting surge of illegal immigration brought him into conflict with red-state governors.
Here in Florida, Gov. DeSantis has particularly decried Biden’s policy of relieving pressure at the border by transporting migrants into the state without notice. In a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security, the governor declared that illegal immigration “consumes taxpayer money and burdens governmental services.”
DeSantis is right to be concerned. Although illegal immigration poses many challenges, the increase in state expenditures is perhaps the most immediate one. In a recent report for the Center for Immigration Studies, I calculated that Florida spent approximately $2 billion in 2019 on major health and education programs for the nearly 800,000 immigrants who lived in the state illegally before the recent surge.
But aren’t those living in the country illegally barred from receiving public benefits? This is a common misconception. Although most of those entering the country illegally cannot directly receive welfare, the state still supports them in other ways, especially through their children.
For example, Florida spent an estimated $52 million on Medicaid coverage for births to immigrants who arrived illegally in 2019, and another $148 million on Medicaid coverage for their older U.S.-born children.
By far the largest state expenditure on the U.S.- and foreign-born children of immigrants who came illegally is public schooling, which the state must provide regardless of a student’s immigration status.
Extrapolating from Florida’s per-pupil expenditures, educating the children of illegal immigrants cost state taxpayers $1.6 billion in 2019. This figure likely understates the true cost, as it does not reflect the special language training that children of people who came illegally disproportionately require.
On the other side of the ledger, immigrants who arrived illegally do contribute sales and property taxes. However, their generally low earnings power – 30% do not have a high school diploma — makes it unlikely that their taxes cover the services they receive. The average personal income of Florida natives in 2019 was 70% higher than the income of immigrants who came illegally ($41,000 versus $24,000).
When the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a complete fiscal analysis of Florida in 2016, it found that the state’s foreign-born residents (both legal and illegal) caused a net fiscal drain of over $1 billion. Given the much higher earnings powers of legal immigrants in the state, it is likely that immigrants who came illegally were the main contributors to that deficit.
Of course, assessing the impact of illegal immigration is not simply an accounting exercise. An uncontrolled border has legal, political, and cultural effects that go beyond dollars and cents.
Whatever one thinks of the way the U.S. selects legal immigrants, the process does at least follow the laws passed by Congress. Illegal immigration, by contrast, flouts those laws.
When President Biden opted to erode security at the border, he also eroded the right of Americans to decide who can and cannot enter their country. Until democratic control over immigration policy is restored, Floridians – and, indeed, all Americans – will continue to pay the price.