A significant concern for many Americans when it comes to immigration is: Can we afford this? Many taxpaying American citizens want to be generous, but with significant economic need among those already within the U.S. , they wonder: Can the country afford to receive additional immigrants from other countries?
It’s important that immigration policies are fair to taxpayers. While a just society will protect uniquely vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and those who have a disability that prevents them from working, in general, everyone should be expected to work to provide for their own basic needs. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers that those who were unwilling to work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and likewise it’s right to expect immigrants to work, not to depend upon social programs funded by the taxes paid by others.
Overall, immigrants actually have a higher labor participation rate than native-born U.S. citizens, and they tend to be concentrated in key industries, complementing rather 31 than replacing the work that most American citizens want and have the skills to do. That’s true both in sectors of our economy requiring a great deal of education, such as technology and medicine, and in those that don’t usually require advanced education, such as working on farms, in restaurants or in hotels, where the jobs immigrants accept often create other jobs that are usually held by U.S. citizens up and down the supply chain. For example, if an immigrant isn’t willing to take a hard-to-fill job picking strawberries, a truck driver to transport those strawberries — who is much more likely to be a U.S. citizen — is also likely to be out of a job. Were it not for immigrants who are willing to work washing dishes, the waitress at the front of a restaurant might not have a job, either.
It’s true that some categories of immigrants receive some governmental assistance, which involves some costs to taxpayers. While most family- or employer-sponsored immigrants, as well as anyone who is undocumented, are ineligible for most federal means-tested public benefits, those who come to the U.S. as refugees do qualify for benefits such as food stamps, as well as some initial resettlement assistance. But, while there may be a net cost to taxpayers for a few years, in the long run these individuals actually contribute more in taxes than they receive: A study by economists at the University of Notre Dame finds that, 20 years after arrival, the average refugee adult has contributed about $21,000 more in taxes than the combined costs of public benefits they have qualified for and initial resettlement assistance. A recent government study found that, between 2005 and 2014, government spent $206 billion on refugees, but during the same time period received $269 billion in taxes at all levels, a net contribution of about $63 billion.
This cost-benefit analysis underscores that, in our focus on fairness to taxpayers, it’s important to recognize that the base of those paying taxes in the U.S. includes many immigrants. Overall, immigrants — including those who are not yet naturalized and thus cannot vote — contributed an estimated $328 billion in local, state and federal taxes in 2014. And, of course, they are also paying for goods and services in our communities, 34 increasing the overall size of the economy and creating jobs for others. Many presume that undocumented immigrants — those living and usually working in the U.S. unlawfully — are not paying taxes, but this turns out not to be true. Like anyone else in our economy, they pay sales tax when they go shopping or buy a car. Those state and local taxes add up to about $7 billion annually for all states. Undocumented 35 immigrants also pay property tax, whether directly as homeowners or indirectly as renters, and those taxes from all states add up to roughly $3.6 billion annually.
And while it’s true that many undocumented immigrants are being paid by unscrupulous employers in cash, off the books, and thus not having income taxes withheld, the Social Security Administration estimates that about half of these unauthorized workers are having payroll taxes taken from their paychecks. In fact, the Social Security Administration has said that individuals whom they believe to be unauthorized workers contribute as much as $12 billion per year that they will never be eligible to receive as a retirement benefit.
However, the fact remains that some undocumented immigrants have not fully paid their taxes, which is unfair to the rest of American taxpayers who have worked hard and paid their fair share. This is another reason why amnesty is the wrong approach. Any path to legal status or citizenship should make sure that American taxpayers are treated fairly in the process by requiring undocumented immigrants to make things right through a process of restitution.
Immigrants are an important part of the U.S. economy. While Christians should value immigrants as human persons made in God’s image regardless of any economic contribution, it is fair that the government consider economic opportunities and impacts as it develops immigration policy, pursuing flourishing for all Americans and being fair to taxpayers, whether they’re native-born American citizens or immigrants.
This is an excerpt from Thinking Biblically about Immigrants and Immigration Reform, an e-book recently published by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).