Over at Huffington Post, Competitive Enterprise Institute's Alex Nowrasteh has an interesting piece pointing out that contrary to conventional restrictionist nonsense, immigrants are not a drain the welfare state. He notes:
The American welfare state is designed to aid the elderly, female, and sick. Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are young, male, and healthy. Therefore, undocumented immigrants account for a much smaller share of welfare spending than their population size would suggest. All immigrants are less likely to move to states with large welfare programs in recent years.
A 2006 RAND Corporation study, published in Health Affairs, found that in Los Angeles County immigrants, especially the undocumented, were about half as likely as natives to have chronic health conditions. Furthermore, while immigrants were almost half of L.A. County's population, they accounted for only one third of the region's total health care spending. A 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants had many fewer doctor and hospital visits on average than native-born Americans. Another 2007 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that low-income immigrants primarily relied upon clinics and health centers for care and used emergency rooms less often than American citizens.
The 1996 welfare reform law cut back welfare access for legal immigrants and virtually ended it for all undocumented immigrants with some exceptions for emergency care. Yet even among eligible immigrants, consumption of welfare services is lower than among citizens. More recently, 57 percent of citizens eligible for Medicaid had enrolled in the program, compared to only 30 percent of eligible immigrants.
All of this is consistent with what President Bush's late press secretary Tony Snow and I wrote in this issue of Reason. For a more updated discussion, see "Immigration and the Welfare State" by Dan Griswold in the Cato Journal.
That said, I disagree with the second half of Nowrasteh's piece. He throws down the gauntlet and asks liberals to choose between the welfare state and immigration because so long as the welfare state is alive, the American public won't be comfortable with immigration. This is wrong for two reasons:
One: Liberals will almost certainly choose the welfare state. Consider Canada. For the last half a century, Canada has been a more welcoming place for immgrants than this land of immigrants. Yet, it has started requiring prospective immigrants to get a pretty intrusive medical exam to ensure that they won't become a burden on the national health care system. Immigrants with pre-existing conditions have not a prayer of being admitted to Canada, but not too many progressives seem too bothered. Indeed, does anyone seriously believe that liberals will agree to kiss goodbye to their beloved ObamaCare because it might lead to more restrictionist immigration policies in the future? They will gladly throw a few immigrants under the Ellis Island ferry to keep the welfare juggernaut on track.
Our best bet for moving toward more open borders and a smaller welfare state is by fighting these battles on separate fronts. It is too clever by half to try and kill two birds with one stone by playing liberals' nominal concern for immigrants against their massive love of the welfare state. We'll end up with two dead birds in our hands.
Two: Nowrasteh's whole piece is about how the data show that welfare use by immigrants is a non-issue. Yet he says we should "build a wall around the welfare state…further restricting its use by immigrants." But legal and illegal immigrants are by and large not entitled to means-tested benefits except for emergency use, thanks to the 1996 welfare reform act. What more should we wall them off from? Schools? Roads?
Also, Nowratesh contends that we should make sure that immigrants "pay a certain amount in taxes before using it (welfare)." That's odd. Immigrants already pay a lot in taxes. No one disputes that high-skilled immigrants pay far more in taxes than they consume in services. Heck, even immigrants who are just high-school graduates pay more in taxes than they consume in services.
What's more, all undocumented immigrants pay sales property taxes and 62 percent pay income taxes and 66 percent Social Security taxes. Are we really comfortable with giving the government the power to withhold basic services from a certain subset of the taxpaying public? Or decide how much is enough in taxes before someone becomes entitled to services?
It is perfectly respectable to respond to restrictionists who worry about immigrants becoming a drain on the welfare system by saying: "Well, then, get rid of the welfare state." It is quite another to say: "well, then, get immigrants off welfare." The first will lead to a net diminution of government power. The second a net increase.
Liberal immigration policies are an important cause for liberty lovers. But whatever compromises are needed to advance that cause – and there are plenty that we'll have to make – they shouldn't give the government more powers to go after more people for more reasons.