Immigration Burden or Boom for Tax Rolls?

Senators reached a landmark deal on immigration today that will give 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States the opportunity to obtain legal status. The compromise crafted by key senators also calls for increased border security to prevent new illegal immigrants from pouring into the country.

The proposed legislation would allow immigrants to obtain a probationary card right away and to ultimately obtain a "Z-visa" that would put them on track to permanent residency.

What does this new agreement mean for America? Overcrowded classrooms and emergency rooms. Overwhelmed police and fire departments. Bankrupt Social Security, Medicare and welfare programs. Skyrocketing taxes.

It's a gloomy scenario that some say could become a reality if millions of illegal immigrants are granted citizenship under a sweeping immigration reform bill currently working its way through the U.S. Senate. But is it fact or fear-mongering?

"This is the most expensive public policy choice that I've seen in Washington in a quarter-century," said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "You're essentially going to grant illegal immigrants eligibility to Social Security, to Medicare, to other welfare programs for the elderly like Medicaid … at the cost to the taxpayer of $17,000 more per illegal immigrant."

Rector bases his calculations not on the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States who could be provided a pathway to citizenship over the next few years, as outlined in the bill, but on the millions more people Rector believes would seek citizenship in the next 20 years as a result of a change in policy.

Many of these new Americans, Rector argues, would be be poor, less-educated and pay thousands per year less in taxes than what they would cost the government in services.

"Each immigrant who does not have a high school degree over his lifetime costs the taxpayer about $1.2 million, and that's all the benefits his family would receive minus the taxes he pays in," said Rector.

But others say those figures overstate the impact, and one group even called the Heritage Foundation's assessment "dehumanizing."

"Human beings are made up of much more than a tally of their income taxes and the tally of the services they use," said Benjamin Johnson of the American Immigration Law Foundation, who cited the contributions of such accomplished high school dropouts as business titans Ray Kroc, Dave Thomas and Kirk Kerkorian.

"It's an indictment of people who are doing really valuable jobs in our economy and being very productive members of our economy," said Johnson, who highlighted the consumer purchasing power and job-creating influence of Hispanics in the United States, estimating their economic contribution at $798 billion in 2006.

Still, the strain on some services is already being felt.

The Texas Hospital Association reported a 30 percent increase in emergency room visits between 1997 and 2005, partly due to the flood of illegal immigrants, many of whom have no health insurance and are unable to pay for services.

"Because somebody becomes a citizen, it doesn't necessarily mean they're suddenly going to have insurance coverage," said THA spokeswoman Amanda Engler. "While granting citizenship status to undocumented immigrants will not guarantee health care coverage, it may create new strains on programs like Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program."

But Juan Onesimo Sandoval, a professor of urban sociology at Northwestern University, said immigration reform could actually add money to government coffers.

"You're going to get people who are getting paid, but because they don't have documentation, it doesn't get reported," said Sandoval. "You're going to see some increase in taxes that they're paying, and once they become part of the formal market, they're going to be paying into Social Security, and so will their employers."

Sandoval also said the future economic contribution of the children and grandchildren of such immigrants could be vital.

"Their taxes are going to be far more important to our economy than their parents' taxes are," said Sandoval, who suggests a wave of new immigrant citizens could help support the aging population in the United States, as some believe it's done in Europe. "In terms of demographics, Latinos tend to be a younger population, so they're going to be part of a work force that will be supporting the Medicaid programs and all these senior programs. As a proportion, they'll be paying more and more of these taxes."