Recently, you may have heard about the amount of government assistance used by immigrants, both legal and illegal, upon arrival in the United States. It’s an argument many on the far right fall back on when discussing immigration. As loud as they are about the issue, the arguments made are mostly false and purely rhetorical.
Asylum seekers normally would receive some government assistance to help keep them going until they find employment. They include very little financial assistance, medical assistance based on necessity, employment preparation, job placement, and English language training. Benefits that are limited to about the first eight months in the country or until they have found employment.
The costs of these benefits once ran about $500 million yearly. When compared to the $2 billion that Trump’s illegal and immoral policies have cost Americans in just the last few months — not including the $200 million dollar stunt sending troops at the border for one month — assisting asylum seekers is not just fiscally sound policy, but the moral implications they carry are those which the United States is supposed to stand for.
Now, the Trump administration has cut funding to those programs in order to fund the mass incarceration of those who attempt to come to this country legally. Trump’s policies have granted fewer visas, approved fewer refugees, ordered the removal of hundreds of thousands of legal residents whose home countries have been hit by war and natural disasters, and tried to push Congress to pass laws to dramatically cut the entire legal immigration system.
While he and his supporters claim that they support legal immigration, his policies and their support of them dictate otherwise.
Immigrants On Welfare
Some would argue that the welfare system is bloated with benefits too large and too widely dispersed. But one thing is abundantly clear, it’s not because of migrants. The reality is that migrants use much fewer welfare benefits than American-born citizens do.
According to the right-leaning Cato Institute, immigrants use 39% fewer welfare benefits than American-born citizens. When it comes to Social Security immigrants are 47% less likely to receive benefits than their American-born counterparts.
Another thing to keep in mind —arguably the biggest factor in discussions about immigration— is that migrants come to the United States because they are drawn to the labor markets, not welfare benefits. The labor market in the United States is attractive to migrants due to the number of open labor positions that American citizens are largely unwilling or unable to fulfill.
It’s also worth noting that migrants in the United States legally are not eligible to receive benefits for the first five years, at which point the benefits are typically no longer needed as they have assimilated into society as major contributors to the economic revenue stream.
Illegal migrants are not eligible to receive benefits with the rare exception of emergency Medicaid benefits which are typically allowed on the State level. Each State has its own requirements with strict guidelines that leave most migrants fending for themselves and paying their own way due to ineligibility or fear of the system.
When discussing migrants and asylum seekers we can’t ignore the fact that illegal border crossings were down an astounding 82% in 2017 compared to 2000. Despite all the mainstream-media-bolstered-rhetoric by Donald Trump and the far-right, the reality is that immigration is less of an issue now than it has been in the past 20 years.
The problems with the immigration system in the United States are not because of migrants or asylum seekers. Much like the welfare system, the problems lie within the system itself. It’s a system that is grossly mismanaged and bloated and lacks the integration and coordination among departments to be operated efficiently. Deficiencies like this are what cost American taxpayers billions of dollars each year
America’s immigration issues are systemic. An issue that hasn’t been properly addressed in decades. A burden that should not be placed upon the shoulders of those seeking safety, security, and a better life. In fact, the most recent slew of the exorbitant increases in cost are a direct result of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy putting a huge strain on an already broken system.
The same anti-immigrant rhetoric that would have you believe that migrants are somehow the problem is the same that argues migrants come to the United States seeking a free ride. Using terms like moochers, this rhetoric is driven by people such as Steven Camarota from the Center for Immigration Studies (among others) who routinely overstate statistics in order to drive an anti-immigrant agenda.
For example, a so-called study produced by Camarota in 2015 —now widely debunked— states that American-born citizens foot the bill for immigrants to receive welfare. He goes so far as to state that immigrants create “a significant burden on public coffers” and that “immigrants strain public resources” making it more difficult “to assist the low-income population already in the country”. It’s no wonder racists love to cite Camarota as a source.
That sentiment is what resonates with conservatives (while also providing ammunition for bigots to attack immigrants in public) despite the facts proving otherwise. The reality is that immigrants are contributing to a welfare system that many of them can’t take advantage of. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 assured that by drastically cutting nearly all welfare extended to immigrants.
Since then, immigrants have been in the position of bolstering the welfare system by contributing much more than they take from it. Studies have consistently proven that immigrants earn about $240 billion a year while paying about $90 billion dollars a year in taxes and only receiving about five billion dollars in benefits. These annual numbers have remained consistent over the last decade.
The United States Chamber of Commerce agrees, stating “much more than half of all undocumented immigrants have federal and state income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes automatically deducted from their paychecks” without reaping any of the benefits. What that means is that migrants are helping to underwrite the welfare system providing an enormous subsidy every year that American citizens benefit from.
The economic benefits of migrants coming to America cannot be overstated. From farms along the California coastline to engineering positions in tech firms, immigrants provide essential labor in an evolving economy filling positions that Americans are simply unwilling or unable to do.
The same Chamber of Commerce report found migrants are more than twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a new business each month. Immigrants start an average of 28% of all new businesses in the United States.
Immigrants also pay billions in taxes to the government each year. Texas alone generates $1.6 billion annually in taxes. To deport millions en masse —sending them back to their home countries as Donald Trump has proposed— would be economically disastrous and would bankrupt the welfare system that so many low-income American citizens depend on.
The discussion shouldn’t be about how much welfare immigrants get. The real discussion should be about whether they deserve to benefit from a system they greatly contribute to.
The Truth About Immigration is a series of articles dispelling the myths that have been circulating about immigration that can be found here, here, and here on Latino Rebels, and also on Medium here, here, and here.
Arturo Tha Cuban is front-line anti-racism activist, essayist and upcoming author who advocates for equality, justice and accountability. He tweets from @ExtremeArturo.