President Donald Trump claimed during a rally in Cleveland, Ohio, that illegal immigration costs the U.S. more than $100 billion a year.
“Illegal immigration costs our country more than $100 billion every single year,” he said.
Estimates of the cost of illegal immigration vary widely. Trump likely based his claim on an estimate from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has received criticism for its methodology.
Trump was in Cleveland Nov. 5 campaigning for Ohio Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterm elections when he made the claim. He was likely referencing a report from FAIR, an organization that supports more limited immigration.
The report, released in September 2017, concluded that illegal immigration costs the U.S. $135 billion per year. FAIR estimated that 12.5 million illegal immigrants, as well as their 4.2 million U.S. citizen children, cost the federal government almost $46 billion and cost about $89 billion at the state and local levels annually.
The majority of this expense comes in the form of medical care and public schooling expenditures. FAIR estimated that illegal immigrants generate about $19 billion in taxes each year, bringing the net cost down to $116 billion annually.
There are relatively few other studies that examine the net cost of illegal immigration. The results for the ones that do exist are much lower than FAIR’s. One study released in 2013 by the right-leaning Heritage Foundation estimated that illegal immigration costs the government about $54.5 billion per year, less than half of the FAIR estimate.
A review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in 1995 entitled “National Net Cost Estimates Vary Widely” found that the net cost of illegal immigration ranged between $2 and $19 billion a year. The report was published at a time when the Census Bureau estimated that 3.5 to 4 million illegal immigrants resided in the country. When adjusted for inflation, net costs would be far higher today.
The wide range of estimates is partly due to the fact that reliable information on illegal immigrants is limited.
No one is sure exactly how many illegal immigrants are even in the U.S. FAIR’s estimate assumed that there are 12.5 million, but Pew Research Center estimated there were 11.3 million in 2016. The Center for Migration Studies put the number at 10.8 million for 2016. A recent Yale University study estimated there may be as many as 22 million in the country. Naturally, the number of illegal immigrants assumed in a study will affect cost estimates.
Calculating the cost of providing public benefits such as medical care and public schooling to illegal immigrants, as well as the tax revenue they generate, is also no exact science.
The FAIR report in particular has received criticism from several experts and think tanks who contend that their cost estimate is too high. To start, some argue that FAIR’s estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is overstated by about 1 million. The most commonly cited number is about 11 million, whereas FAIR puts the number at 12.5 million. (The Yale study that estimates 22 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. had not been published at the time FAIR did its analysis.)
Alex Nowrasteh, a senior immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a pro-immigration think tank, calls the FAIR report “fatally flawed.” Nowrasteh points out that the FAIR report includes the benefits consumed by the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S., who under law are U.S. citizens, but then does not include the tax revenue generated by this group.
“Counting the benefits consumed but ignoring the tax revenue they pay (or will do so in the future) is one way FAIR gets such a negative result for this report,” writes Nowrasteh. “If FAIR counts the welfare consumed by the U.S. born children of illegal immigrants then it must also count the taxes that that cohort pays, but it does not. In this way, the FAIR report biases its results to increase the value of benefits received and diminish the value of taxes paid.”
Nowrasteh takes issue with several other assumptions in the FAIR report and estimates that “merely using the correct numbers” drops the cost down to between $3.3 billion and $15.6 billion a year.
Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, also believes the FAIR report is faulty.
“The number cited is almost surely too high and doesn’t take account of the taxes all immigrants pay both directly and with regard to the future earnings of them and their children. I generally find the FAIR report to overstate the costs and understate the benefits of documented and undocumented immigrants,” Rueben said in an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation.
FAIR did not respond to a request for comment.
While the total cost of illegal immigration has been debated, available estimates nonetheless show that the costs of illegal immigration exceed the revenues.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at Heritage and one of the authors of the 2013 report, explained that this mostly has to do with the education levels of illegal immigrants. “The reality is, as almost anyone would acknowledge, even outside the context of immigration, is that a person that only has a high school degree is very likely to receive more in government benefits and services than they pay in in taxes. And of course, half of illegals don’t have a high school degree,” Rector told TheDCNF.
About 47 percent of illegal immigrants ages 25 to 64 have not completed a high school education, compared to 8 percent among U.S. citizens in the same age bracket, according to a 2009 report from Pew.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.