In a recent piece on this site, Linda Chavez chastises Rich Lowry for arguing that Donald Trump had a point concerning the problematic aspects of Mexican immigration. Lowry rightly made clear in his article that Trump’s comments were “crude” and “did more to insult than to illuminate.” He further made clear that the problems stem directly from the huge share of Mexican immigrants (nearly 60 percent) who have less than a high-school diploma. Chavez’s response to Lowry suggests that she does not fully understand many of the issues involved.
Lowry’s main point is that unskilled immigration from Mexico (or anywhere else) is problematic, because “education is essential to success.” This is obvious from even a cursory glance at the data. Lowry cited statistics from the Center for Immigration Studies (where I am director of research), which Chavez never disputes, showing that a large share of Mexican immigrants and their children are in poverty, lack health insurance, and receive welfare.
On welfare use, Chavez responds by citing an NBER paper and one by the Cato Institute to argue that the high rate of welfare use by immigrants is somehow not a problem because low-income immigrants are less likely to receive welfare than low-income natives. But just a moment’s reflection reveals that this argument, which is actually true only for certain programs, is irrelevant to the issue at hand because immigrants in general and Mexican immigrants in particular are dramatically more likely to be low-income in the first place. The share of all immigrants and their young (under 18) children in poverty is one third higher than that of natives and their children. And it is 123 percent higher for Mexican immigrants. Overall, 40 percent of immigrant-headed households use one or more welfare programs, compared with 25 percent of native households. Among Mexican immigrant households, 57 percent access welfare.
Chavez also cites a study indicating that Mexican immigrants tend to stay on one type of cash welfare, formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for shorter periods than natives. But that study is based on data from two decades ago, and it dealt with just one program, which is only a tiny part of the welfare system. Moreover, the authors of that study actually found that “all three immigrant groups (Mexican, ‘other Hispanic,’ and non-Hispanic) are significantly more likely to receive AFDC than white natives.” This gets to the same point mentioned above. Less-educated immigrants do better than less-educated natives in some ways, and in other ways they do worse. But, regardless, allowing large-scale unskilled immigration dramatically increases the poor population, with all the problems this implies.
It is worth pointing out that most households accessing welfare, immigrant or native, have at least one worker. But welfare and work go together in today’s America. People can work and still access non-cash welfare — e.g., food stamps, Medicaid, public housing — and even cash programs.
Moving on from welfare, it is true that at present immigrants pay more into retirement programs, mainly Medicare and Social Security, than they are taking out. But the impact is quite small, and it is positive only in the short run. In the long run, adding low-income people to a system that tends to pay a higher return to those with low incomes makes little sense. On the larger question of whether all immigration increases the ratio of workers to retirees, Census Bureau projections and other research show that immigration is no fix for an aging society.
Equally important, we should not think of retirement programs in isolation, as they are part of the federal budget. Congress once used the Social Security surplus to pay for general expenses; now it is committed to making up the program’s future deficits. What really matters for immigration policy is the total net fiscal impact (all taxes paid and all services received).
In its highly regarded 1997 study on immigration, the National Research Council (NRC) found that immigrant households used $11 billion to $20 billion more in all services than they paid in all taxes each year. The Heritage Foundation estimated in a 2013 study that households headed by legal immigrants create a net fiscal deficit of $56 billion annually, and illegal-immigrant households create a net deficit of $50 billion. A central conclusion drawn by both Heritage and the NRC was that less-educated immigrants — such as the majority that come from Mexico — create a huge fiscal drain, partly because of their high use of welfare. Well-educated immigrants, on the other hand, provide a significant fiscal benefit.
Do we really need more unskilled workers, as Chavez argues? If so, it would be the first time in history that a society lowered the average education of its workforce as a way of increasing prosperity. Here is what the data actually show: First, workers in general, and those with no more than a high-school education in particular, have seen their real wages stagnate or decline in recent years. How can less-educated workers be in such short supply if wages are actually down? Second, data from April and May of 2015 show 30 million 18- to 65-year-olds (excluding prisoners) with no education beyond high school not working — a huge supply of potential labor if paid and treated fairly. Third, 61 percent of households headed by an immigrant without a high-school education access one or more welfare programs, and the number is 47 percent for households headed by an immigrant with only a high-school education. Adult immigrants with a high-school education or less have dramatically higher rates of poverty and uninsurance than natives, and a large share of both groups struggle with English even after they have been in the country for 20 years.
To be sure, less-educated natives also tend to struggle. But how does it make sense to add to these problems through immigration? Doing so makes it harder to help our own poor. Partly because we have allowed in so many unskilled immigrants legally and illegally, about one third of all children in poverty today live in an immigrant household. It is very hard to argue that importing poverty to satisfy the demands of low-wage employers is in the interest of our country.
Each year thousands of serious crimes are committed by illegal immigrants — people who are not supposed to even be in the country.
Towards the end of her article, Chavez discusses crime, something Trump talked about but Rich never really deals with. She argues that immigrant crime rates are low, citing, for example, the fact that overall crime rates have declined since 1994, while the immigrant population has grown. This is true, but incarceration rates have grown dramatically and in tandem with the immigrant population in the last few decades. I have reviewed dozens of studies of immigrant crime, and the picture is far from clear, because good data are lacking. It may be that poor immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than poor natives, but again, immigrants are much more likely to be poor. As for incarceration rates, they are not particularly high for foreign-born Hispanics, but they are high for U.S.-born Hispanics.
The issue of immigrant crime rates needs further study. But in some ways it partly misses the point. There is simply no question that each year thousands of serious crimes are committed by illegal immigrants — people who are not supposed to even be in the country. This outrages the public. In fact, in many cases, such as the murder of Kate Steinle a few days ago in San Francisco, the illegal-immigrant perpetrator was identified and known to authorities, but as a matter of policy was still released from jail. Saying, in effect, “Don’t worry, immigrant crime is not as high as you think” only makes the public more angry. People know that if we just took the simple and logical step of deporting illegal-immigrant criminals once they have served their time, rather than putting them back on our streets, some very serious crimes could be avoided.
The truth is that immigration creates both costs and benefits. Rich’s piece makes clear that unskilled immigration is problematic, but he is also very clear that this is not due to some kind of moral defect on the immigrants’ part. Rather, it reflects the reality of a society where education has become the key to success. Of course, less-educated immigrants benefit economically by coming here, but if the primary goal of immigration policy is to benefit Americans, Rich’s point is unassailable.
— Steven Camarota is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.