Reality Check

Debunking Myths About Immigration that Misinform Americans

As the president heads to Capitol Hill to discuss the immigration reform bill, CAP dispels myths that skew the immigration debate.

The current debate regarding the comprehensive immigration reform bill is complex and hotly contested, yet the fundamental legislative framework is clearly within reach despite the Senate’s recent failure to move forward with bipartisan legislation supported by President Bush. This is why the president’s trip to Capitol Hill today to meet with fellow Republicans is so important to the political, social, and economic future of the nation.

With so much at stake, it’s important to have the correct information about the state of immigrants in the United States today and a clear understanding of the importance of comprehensive immigration reform. The following are a series of reality checks on commonly held myths about immigration and immigrants, based on several reports released by policy experts of the Center for American Progress.

Reality Check: Immigrants in the U.S. Health Care System

Myth: U.S. public health insurance programs are overburdened with documented and undocumented immigrants.

Reality: Twenty-one percent of total medical costs were paid through public sources for native-born citizens, compared to 16 percent for documented and undocumented immigrants. In terms of taxes paid per household, this equates to $56 for health care for documented immigrants and $11 for health care (emergency Medicaid services) for the undocumented.

Myth: Immigrants come to the United States to gain access to health services.

Reality: Immigrants are most likely to be employed in indus­tries that do not offer health insurance coverage, such as agriculture, construction, food processing, restau­rants, and hotel services. Uninsured rates in these industries are more than 30 percent for all workers compared to 19 percent for workers across all industries.

Myth: Undocumented immigrants are “free-riders” in the U.S. health care system.

Reality: The National Research Council concluded that immigrants will pay on average $80,000 per capita more in taxes than they will use in government services during their lifetimes. The Social Security Admin­istration, for example, estimates that workers without valid social secu­rity numbers contribute $7 billion in Social Security tax revenues and roughly $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes annually, yet elderly immigrants rarely qualify for Medicare or long-term care services provided through Medicaid.

Reality Check: Immigrants and the U.S. Work Force

Myth: Out-of-work natives could replace undocumented immigrants in our workforce.

Reality: Removing all undocumented immigrants from the U.S. workforce would leave 2.5 million low-skill jobs unfilled. In a paper commissioned by the Center for American Progress, William & Mary economist David A. Jaeger found a telling disparity between myth and reality in the effects of immigration on the workforce: out-of-work natives could not effectively replace undocumented natives. The jobs that undocumented immigrants currently hold require a substantially lower skill set than most jobless natives possess. As a result of the skills gap, only 105,000 natives could appropriately replace the 2.5 million immigrants in very low-skill jobs, leaving 2.4 million positions unfilled. Such a loss would put states with large immigrant populations, such as Arizona and California, in dire straits.

Myth: Undocumented immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy.

Reality: Even conservative estimates show that undocumented immigrants play a substantial role in supporting the U.S. economy and boosting its potential. In Arizona, they earn 2.9 percent of total wages; that is 2.5 times more than physicians and 3.1 times more than lawyers and police officers or firefighters. Immigrants’ presence in the labor force not only buttresses that force’s lower tiers, it also fosters overall economic growth.

A 2006 study found that state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants in Texas exceeded by $424.7 million what the state spent on these immigrants in public services such as education and health care in 2005.

Reality Check: The Feasibility of a Mass Deportation Policy

Myth: Deportation is a realistic and economically feasible way of taking care of the backlog of undocumented workers currently in the United States.

Reality: Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has stated “[T]he dirty secret is that we couldn’t deport 10 million illegal immigrants if we wanted to.” Deporting 10 million undocumented immigrants would cost $41 billion annually over five years, or $206 billion total, using conservative estimates of key variables. Compared to other current budget figures, the cost of a mass deportation policy would:

  • Exceed the entire budget of the Department of Homeland Security for the 2006 fiscal year ending in October 2007 ($34.2 billion) 
  • Approach the total amount of money requested by the 33 federal agencies responsible for homeland security activities for FY 2006 ($49.9 billion) 
  • More than double annual spending on border and transportation security ($19.3 billion) 
  • Comprise half the annual cost of the Iraq war ($74 billion) 
  • More than double the annual cost of military operations in Afghanistan ($16.8 billion)

Reality Check: The Majority of the Public Supports Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Myth: There is weak support among the public for immigration reform.

Reality: Voters consistently express support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. Data from a recent CNN poll, for example, show that 80 percent of the public favors a program that would allow illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for several years, have jobs, and are willing to pay back taxes, to apply for citizenship. A Quinnipiac University poll from last November similarly showed that a very strong 69 percent-to-27 percent majority of registered voters favor a similar program.

Perpetuation of Myths is Not in the Nation’s Best Interests

The majority of the U.S. public understands that these myths misinform the immigration debate, which is why we as a country overwhelmingly support a tough but not punitive approach to immigration reform. President Bush has an opportunity and an obligation today and in the coming weeks to persuade restrictionists not to perpetuate myths that skew the debate. Misinformation about the important policies under discussion is not in our nation’s best interests.

To read more about CAP’s reports on immigration, please see:

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