The Made-Up Numbers Dominating the Immigration Debate

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The Heritage Foundation made a splash early this week with a report predicting that the current immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate would cost the U.S. government $6.3 trillion dollars in benefits like Social Security, Medicare, means-tested welfare, and other programs over 50 years. The basic logic behind the study is that undocumented immigrants are far lower skilled and less educated than the average American, and therefore these folks will, on average, take more in benefits than they will contribute in taxes.

(MORE: The Gang Reaches Across the Aisle as Senate Immigration Debate Kicks Off)

The analysis fomented significant backlash, not just from the liberal outfits you’d expect but also from conservative groups like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute that support immigration reform. The two biggest flaws in the report, according to these critics, were that it did not take into account any of the economic benefits of immigration and previously undocumented immigrants coming out from the shadows; and that it underplayed the high costs of the status quo. As Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute puts it:

“Heritage … largely ignores the wage increases experienced by immigrants and their descendants over the course of their working lives, how those wages would alter after legalization, and the huge gains in education amongst the second and third generation of Hispanics.”

In addition, the Heritage report assumes that undocumented immigrants mostly up and leave when they reach the age of 55 — whereas under the reform bill they would remain in the U.S. and draw heavily on government programs. But this assumption doesn’t make a lot of sense: As Dylan Matthews points out  in the Washington Post, the reason there currently are not more older, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is that they were legalized by a 1986 amnesty law.

Regardless of the Heritage study’s flaws, it set many conservative supporters of immigration, like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, back on their heels. The last thing a deficit hawk wants is a proposal that will add trillions to the deficit over the next several decades. So Senator Rubio reached out to the Social Security Administration for an analysis on the effects of the bill on the economy, Social Security, and Medicare.

Surprise! The Social Security Administration came to the exact opposite conclusion as the Heritage Foundation. As the Associated Press reported it, the SSA analysis, “said the immigration bill would boost Social Security’s coffers by more than $240 billion over the coming decade and add $64 billion in new tax revenues to Medicare. It also would increase the size of the economy by a full percentage point by 2017, and increase employment.”

Anybody even a little familiar with the house of mirrors that is Washington, D.C., shouldn’t be surprised that two different organizations could differ on the effects of a bill by nearly $7 trillion dollars. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that the organizations are simply talking about apples and oranges. For instance, the time horizons don’t even purport to match up. The Heritage Foundation doesn’t disagree that, in the short term, a “path to citizenship” will increase payroll tax receipts, but argues that over 50 years, these folks will ultimately take more out of programs like Medicare and Social Security than they pay in. The SSA numbers, meanwhile, are based on projections only 10 years into the future.

(MORE: The Economics of Immigration: Who Wins, Who Loses and Why)

The SSA projection, meanwhile — which primarily aimed to gauge the bill’s effect on Social Security and Medicare — is in certain respects much more narrowly focused than the Heritage estimates. It doesn’t, for example, take into account the effect of immigration reform on government programs like the Earned Income Tax credit, or the potential strain placed on local school systems.

Even examined on it’s own merits, however, the supposed conclusions of the SSA study appear logically flawed. To argue, for instance, that removing America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants from the shadows will “increase employment” is an almost trivial statement: Of course it will increase official measures of employment. Similarly, population growth will almost always increase GDP, which is simply the sum of the dollar value of all the goods and services produced in an economy.

Then there’s the yawning imprecision of the SSA projections, which (to the agency’s credit) was made abundantly clear by the number of assumptions and estimates explicitly listed in the agency’s letter to Senator Rubio. They include, without any supporting basis, the assumptions that:

  • Just 8 million of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants will apply for and be granted provisional status;
  • Fewer than 8 million immigrants will maintain this status after 2021; and
  • The border control provisions in the bill will reduce illegal immigration by 500,000 per year.

And embedded even in the GDP growth estimates are further assumptions about the earning power of immigrants, how much immigrants will remit home, and the general performance of the economy, just to name a few.

I’m not even arguing that these these assumptions are flawed, or that one prediction is better than the other, but rather that any economic forecast of the effects of an immigration bill contains so many estimates and assumptions as to make projections nearly meaningless in the long run.

(MORE: Immigration Bill Faces First Major Test)

Politicians use these studies for shock value. The $6.3 trillion Heritage figure will stop you in your tracks the first time you hear it, and probably cause those on the fence about a “path to citizenship” think hard about its costs. But that number would be misleading even in the unlikely event that it turns out to be entirely correct: If federal spending — which was $3.7 trillion in 2012 – grows by 2% per year, that $6.3 trillion would represent just 2% of total federal spending over the next 50 years. This would seem a small price if, for instance, you are convinced of the moral necessity of immigration reform.

Economists do not have an easy job. The vast majority of them work in good faith to make the best projections that the available evidence can provide. But predicting the future is hard work that requires estimating dozens or even hundreds of variables. Even the Federal Reserve, home to some of the most respected economists in the world, has consistently failed at projecting the trajectory of the economic recovery, even just a few years out.

So the next time you hear politicians throwing numbers around about the budgetary implications of immigration reform, get out your salt shaker. Immigration reform is surely one of the most important political issues of our time. It will require us to take into account our beliefs about fairness, the sanctity of the law, and the morality of refusing human beings access to a better life. These are grave and difficult questions, even without adding nonsense data into the mix.

28 comments
ReyHast
ReyHast

Listen and do not get upset, first you need to learn how to save your money, tooooo many bankruptcies, second toooo much bla bla bla and offering NO solutions, third theres no need of building a sky high wall between NA or USA and Mexico or expending trillions on national security I know of a system that will correct all of the problems. if want to know how write to the 8 members and tell them to contact me ASP. otherwise please continue.

sure asking immigrants to pay back taxes, how many years back? any idea? plus interests sure, and then asking them to pay in cash or payments or we will take their new cars some of them you pay for it

VickieArnold
VickieArnold

We are borroring money from China while we spend $Billions supporting Mexico's citizens.  We cannot sustain being invaded by millions of welfare-class bums feeding at the American trough.

arker
arker

It all depends on the 'type' of immigrants!!

CharlesEdwardBrown
CharlesEdwardBrown

NO AMNESTY and NO LEGALIZATION for illegal aliens living in the United States. Its time the Federal Government start doing their job and enforce the law. Deport all illegal aliens.

jamesf161
jamesf161

6.3 trillion over 50 years sounds fine, considering humanitarian issues in Mexico and assuming value in being able to live where you please having some value. Anyway, the notion that they are a net cost seems dubious, and could probably be negated by making education easier to access, a worthwhile exercise regardless of amnesty.

j.cadman.smith
j.cadman.smith

Another report that makes the Republicans look like fools.  We need to make our borders secure, that's a must and be selective about who we let in. Another amnesty is wrong.  We need well educated people from all over the world to fill jobs, not illegal aliens, but we also need people to do jobs that ordinary Americans will not do.  What's wrong with giving visas out?  Issue them in Mexico and maybe people will go back to Mexico to get theirs and become legal.

wgberger
wgberger

"The Made-Up Numbers Dominating the Immigration Debate" - yes, like the "11 million undocumented". Now that is a made up number. So too that Mexicans immigration has declined.

The only number I believe is that 8 Senators are actively working to destroy the Middle Class in this country.

JimB210
JimB210

"Economists do not have an easy job. The vast majority of them work in good faith to make the best projections that the available evidence can provide." The other ones work for organizations (and politicians) trying to push a particular ideological point of view. The Heritage study is flawed to anyone who thinks about it for even a few seconds. It counts only the costs, without consideration of the economic benefits of having those additional minds working and living in this country, instead of getting deported back to India, Mexico, or China and then starting a new business or innovating a new technology in their home country. We must stop sending home bright motivated people educated in this country to become producers and creators in other places.

alvarez.t3
alvarez.t3

How much to round up all the white terrorist relatives  that killed and then stole this Indian land and deport them back to the mother Who$e England ..

swagger
swagger

how much to round them up, process them and ship them back to where they came from?  how much time would it take?  how much would business owners lose and how much would it cost the overall economy?  was that in the heritage report?  i didn't think so.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

"The basic logic behind the study is that undocumented immigrants are far lower skilled and less educated than the average American, and therefore these folks will, on average, take more in benefits than they will contribute in taxes."


That is a TRUE statement. The illegals are not the highly educated cream-of-the-crop of the countries from which they originally came. Some will get there, but it will take a generation before it happens. Meanwhile we add another $6 TRILLION on top of all the TRILLIONS we are adding and it sums to DISASTER. It makes no sense at all to bring 11 MILLION more people into the system when we already have 15% real unemployment and swimming in red ink. What it comes down to is that the democrats figure $6 TRILLION is a cheap price for 11 MILLION votes, but I don't.

DBritt
DBritt

What consistent trash the Heritage Foundation is. I can't imagine why anyone would pay attention to such a thoroughly discredited organization. The perfect intersection of false and repulsive.

wgberger
wgberger

You don't have to even do an exhaustive study. Just ask yourself if our economy during the greatest surge in immigration since the Statue of LIberty was erected has been good. Or ask yourself why we keep having amnesties every few years if each one is promised as a fix or the past transgressions.

Enough already. No amnesty. And reduce ALL immigration to give this country some breathing room.

Uglyamerican
Uglyamerican

The Right makes up facts and numbers is the allegation? So does the Left and advocates of illegal immigration. For example the figure of 11.7 million illegal aliens in the US cannot by any logic be right. Mexico alone claims twenty million of their citizens here without permission. At least a half million get past our southern border every year. There are probably  around thirty million or more as a minimum. 

Then there is the claim that illegal aliens only take jobs Americans won't do. That is horsefeathers. What they refer to is agriculture and only about five percent of all unauthorized foreigners work farm jobs.

There are so many other place where the truth is stretched for the indefensible to try to defend their case or distract from their true nature that it would take an article as long as this one to catalog them. The question is then; Why do people from a culture that admires dishonestly and lawbreaking still follow their culture but try to demand everyone else be honest with them?

tom.litton
tom.litton

@CharlesEdwardBrown This law requires more border security and a crack down on illegal employment before legalization can take place.  

If this law doesn't pass now then the millions of illegal immigrants will continue to take american jobs and there will be little done to stop more from coming in.  No new bill (regardless if it has amnesty in it) is going to pass for at least several years (i suspect it will never pass without amnesty, because of the blow back from the latino vote).

Besides, amnesty is the only way of dealing with the people already here.  Nobody is going to deport that many people.  It would be far to expensive to find and ship them out, and be really bad politics.

SarahNewman
SarahNewman

@jamesf161 

Are you Mexican? We as American do not want Mexicans to be here. They have to come back to Mexico. We do not exceed job and money to raise your kids and yourself. Please do not come here and violate our law, we need to enforce our federal immigration law. 

tom.litton
tom.litton

@j.cadman.smith Why hire people on visas when there are 11 million (and growing) illegals to fill those jobs without having to pay taxes. 

Plus their children (who are US citizens) will be on average poor and will cost roughly the same amount of money in the long run.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@mary.waterton the next generation of illegals are already citizens, and since their parents will be denied many ways of improving their livelyhoods, their children will likely be poor and cost more or less the same amount of money in the long run.

15% unemployment is a great time to bring 11 million more people into the system.  It will force their employees to give them a fair wage, allowing American workers to be more competitive. 

BobJan
BobJan

@mary.waterton you need to stop listening to the likes of the Heritage Foundation and former Senator Jim DeMint. We got rid of him from the Senate and now he's loose to do and say what he wants. Just remember that years ago immigrants came from Italy, Poland, Greece, Germany, and other countries and have contributed greatly to this country. If your ancestors didn't come here on the Mayflower or through Jamestown then your ancestors were not the "cream of the crop". Oh and by the way, the "cream of the crop" didn't fight in wars, they caused them.

BobJan
BobJan

@DBritt the likes of Jim DeMint left the Senate only to go to the heritage Foundation. He's a right wing nut case.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@wgberger They are already here taking american jobs.  Amnesty will only level the playing field my making employers pay them both the same wage.  

Amnesty isn't a way of keeping immigrants from coming here.  Amnesty is only a way of dealing with the ones that already made it.  You can increase border security all you want, but you will still have 11 million illegals already here taking american jobs.  They are mostly crappy jobs that nobody wants, but still...

The problem is that the federal government didn't keep up with the changing situation by apply new technologies that increases border security and cracks down on illegal employment, both of which this bill does. 

Vlademirz
Vlademirz

It seems that you do not take into account all the factory jobs and menial jobs that only immigrants can take as they do not have any sort of education to show for this country also how is crossing an imaginary line for a chance at a better life for your family admiring dishonesty? We do not demand for you to be honest but humane, we too are people

Balrog
Balrog

Learn English before telling people what to do. Nobody can 'come back' to Mexico,they can only 'go back' ignoramus.

Bigish
Bigish

You are a very stupid woman. Who's gonna clean your house? ... Yiu are too Lazy to do it yourself.

Who's gonna cut your grass or wash your car or paint your house or grow what you eat or so many other works American people is SO LAZY to do it?

tom.litton
tom.litton

@SarahNewman @jamesf161 This bill does a much better job at enforcing the immigration laws.  In fact, it requires it before dealing with the people that are already here.


austintexas78721
austintexas78721

@SarahNewman @jamesf161 When you say "Mexican's"  I am Mexican but born in RAISED in the USA.  I take offense to you saying that you do not want Mexican's to be here... We as AMERICAN'S violate and take advantage of the system more than people who are illegal.  Why don't you ask people who work for Health and Human Services if they get food stamps and half of the people giving out the benefits are on welfare. 

VickieArnold
VickieArnold

I worked in a public health facility and saw strings of anchor babies being dragged through the clinics (spending our money) daily.  Many of these bums couldn't even speak English, but they know how to reproduce and work the system.