Immigration’s burden doesn’t fall on a ‘handful of red states’

Eduardo Porter
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Who bears the burden of immigration? Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have made much of their claim that their jurisdictions do so disproportionately, and those run by Democrats obviously do not.

“Every community in America should be sharing in the burdens,” DeSantis said after he plucked 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas and flew them to Massachusetts. “It shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states.”

Abbott, who has been spreading own-the-Dems mirth across MAGA America by busing asylum seekers to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City, apparently agrees. It’s all about “providing much-needed relief to Texas’ overwhelmed border communities,” his office asserted.

Migrants flown by the state of Florida on Sept. 15, 2022, to Martha’s Vineyard were taken in at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, seen here the following day. (Bianca Padro Ocasio/Miami Herald/TNS)

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Yet once these red-state pranksters stop chortling about the blue-state outrage over their handiwork, they might stop to consider the extent to which they are misleading their constituents and undermining their states’ economic fortunes.

Their proposition that poor migrants — whether undocumented, seeking asylum or whatever — are a red-state burden to be foisted upon rival blue jurisdictions relies on a misrepresentation of how the “burden” is in fact distributed. It exploits a vast misunderstanding of the true costs and benefits of immigration.

According to research by economists at Harvard University, Americans overstate the number of immigrants living in the United States by almost fourfold. They underestimate their education and employment rates, and overestimate both their poverty and the burden they impose on American taxpayers.

Almost 15% of Americans believe the average immigrant receives twice as much support from the government as natives do. A 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences found that although immigrants and their families also pay less in taxes, they receive fewer benefits across their lifecycles than families headed by American-born.

The misperceptions, the research found, are starkest among people without a college education — especially those working in industries with lots of immigrants — and people who lean politically to the right. So Abbott and DeSantis are probably correct to think these voters will buy that immigrants are mooching off them personally, not off the smug liberals of New York and Chicago.

That, too, is wrong. Over a quarter of the population in deep-blue California was not born in the U.S. — 10.4 million people. Some 4.5 million foreign-born live in New York, in the ballpark with Texas and Florida. Overall, there are twice as many foreign-born people in states won by Joe Biden in 2020 than in those won by Donald Trump. And they make up a substantially larger share of their population.

And because public services tend to be more generous in blue states, taxpayers there tend to pay a larger tab for the wellbeing of the immigrants living among them.

According to the Academies of Sciences report, immigrants and their dependents in Texas receive state and local benefits worth $2,050 more than they pay in state and local taxes. But so do immigrants and their families in California. DeSantis’s claims notwithstanding, the net fiscal burden imposed by immigrants in Florida is small, by comparison: $350, against $1,500 in New York and $1,850 in New Jersey.

It may seem naive to take the GOP pranksters’ argument at face value. The purpose of the buses and the charter planes loaded with Venezuelans was to score points among a crowd already convinced that immigration, no matter its form, threatens their way of life.

By stoking voters’ xenophobia, however, the governors can only harm the states they govern.

Consider, for starters, the fiscal balance mentioned above. Immigrants and their dependents may cost state and local coffers more than what they contribute in taxes. But their children will one day be adults. And families headed by this second generation contribute substantially more than they take out: $1,550 more in California, $4,400 more in New York, $1,200 more in Florida.

Beyond this narrow window, the cost of pushing away the immigrants that are fueling most of the population growth could hurt states whose domestic pool of workers is shrinking. Immigrant women make up most of the eldercare workforce. Asparagus is now grown mostly in Mexico rather than the San Joaquin Valley, where less illegal immigration has slimmed the agricultural labor force.

The historical record provides compelling evidence of the economic damage that Abbott’s and DeSantis’s political instincts might yield.

As the Great Depression swept across the United States, states and localities repatriated hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. In a somewhat contradictory argument, William Doak, the Secretary of Labor at the time, argued that the expulsions were both “essential to reduce unemployment of citizens” and needed because “many of the target individuals were jobless and on relief.” Mexicans took too many jobs — yet too many of them were unemployed. Go figure.

A study almost a century later by economists at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Davis, and the Korea Development Institute, found that cities that deported most aggressively saw a fall in the employment and wages of natives, especially those holding complementary jobs that in some way depended on the low-wage industry in which the Mexicans labored.

Not only did natives not replace the lost Mexican workers. “The repatriation of Mexicans, who were mostly laborers and farm workers,” the researchers wrote, “reduced demand for other jobs mainly held by natives, such as skilled craftsman and managerial, administrative and sales jobs.”

DeSantis and Abbott have not yet started to ship out immigrants that are active in their labor force. They probably understand the costs. But the voters they hope to energize with their buses and charter planes full of asylum seekers might soon ask them to do just that. And as nutty as that sounds, both governors may well see a political logic in complying.

– Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of "American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise" and "The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost."