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Originally Published: 5/27/2010


By The Issue Wonk

In the wake of the law passed in Arizona designed to apprehend undocumented workers, and in view of the fact that immigration policy will be at the forefront during an election year, I thought we ought to start the discussion with the facts, not vitriol or rhetoric. So, here are the 3 most cited arguments used to support laws against undocumented workers.

Undocumented immigrants are causing a crime wave.

There is no evidence that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than any other group. In fact, their fear of being caught and deported makes it less likely that they'll commit crimes. A 2005 study conducted by researchers from Harvard and the University of Michigan found that immigrants committed fewer crimes than native-born citizens and that a greater proportion of immigrants in a neighborhood was associated with lower rates of crime.1 A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that, in that state, which contains more immigrants than any other, the foreign-born are incarcerated at only half the rate of native-born and only 1/10th the rate among men age 18-40, who make up the bulk of prisoners.2 And Robert J. Sampson, chair of the Sociology Department at Harvard University, said that data indicate that undocumented immigrants are, in fact, “disproportionately less likely to be involved in many acts of deviance, crime, drunk driving, any number of things that sort of imperil our well-being.”3

And what about Arizona, where much of the support for the new law is based on this myth? Data provided by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that the crime rate in Arizona in 2008 was at its lowest in 4 decades. In the past decade, as the number of illegal immigrants in that state grew rapidly, the violent crime rate dropped by 23% and the property crime rate dropped by 28%.
Undocumented workers are adding to violence on the border.

Violence along the U.S./Mexican border is also often cited as a reason to round up undocumented workers. But is the violence the result of the illegal immigration? Despite the sensational reports of violent crime, particularly in Arizona, statistics again indicate that crime rates along the border are declining. According to Devin Dwyer in an ABC News report:4

In many of the U.S. border communities themselves, local law
enforcement officials report violent- and property-crime rates
that have fallen over the past year, and, in several cases, are
among the lowest in the country. Cities like Tucson [Arizona];
Chula Vista, California; and Laredo, Texas, have all seen year-
over-year drops in violent crime, murder, and rape. El Paso,
Texas, continues to have one of the lowest rates of violent
crime of all U.S. cities, just behind Honolulu, according to the

As Dwyer's report indicates, the crime in Mexico itself, “driven by warring drug cartels in the communities along the U.S. border, has spiked in the past few years. . . [A]nd some experts believe recent crimes in Arizona involving illegal immigrants may have ties to that Mexican unrest.” However, the fact remains that crime is down and no matter how much people claim that the violence is spilling over, there is no evidence to that effect.

Dwyer also points out that the few crimes involving illegal immigrants that have occurred in Arizona border communities are “creating the false impression of a widespread violent crime problem that isn't there.” He also speculates that the “uptick” in violent incidents is not the result of increased incidences but are due to the increase of heightened enforcement and security measures. Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County, Arizona said: “The more pressure is applied in urban areas, the further out the migrants and smugglers are going to go, and the more competitive, more violent it's going to get. . . Violence is on the Mexican side, like it's breathing on us. But the [Santa Cruz] county is very safe as a whole. If there's any violence here, it's in the rural areas and canyons. There are probably a lot of things going on we're not aware of.”

Undocumented workers use a disproportionate share
of social services but pay no taxes.

Another argument is that undocumented immigrants consume a disproportionate amount of social services and don't pay taxes, thereby constituting a drain on American society. However, federal programs like food stamps, Medicaid, SCHIP, and welfare are not available to undocumented immigrants. Anyone seeking to enroll in these programs must provide proof of their legal status.5 Even documented immigrants cannot avail themselves of these programs. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 forbids most forms of public assistance for the first 5 years that an immigrant legally resides in the United States or until they obtain citizenship. There are some social programs that undocumented workers can access – public education for their children, for instance – but they do pay taxes that support the government.

Undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes, property taxes (even if they rent, a portion of their rent goes for property taxes), and they pay income and payroll taxes. Yes, they get jobs by using false Social Security numbers, but this results in large sums of money being paid for payroll taxes (Medicare and Social Security) which they will never receive. Payroll withholding also results in federal, state, and local income taxes being withheld. The New York Times6 reported in 2005 that the Social Security Administration estimated that fully 75% of undocumented workers paid payroll taxes, amounting to as much as $7 billion a year to the Social Security Trust Fund7 and another $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes. And what about state and local services? According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) 2007 report:8

Over the past 2 decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal
impact of immigration in the United States have concluded
that, in aggreate and over the long term, tax revenues of all
types generated by immigrants - both legal and unauthorized -
exceed the cost of the services they use. Generally, such
estimate include revenues and spending at the federal, state,
and local levels. However, many estimates also show that
the cost of providing public services to unauthorized
immigrants at the state and local levels exceeds what that
population pays in state and local taxes.

So, while there appears to be an impact locally, there is a benefit nationally. I would speculate that the greatest impact at the local level is due to the use of the public education system, although I could find no documentation to that effect. If this is the case, it would be an interesting argument as to whether the children, most of whom were probably born here, are legal or illegal. This would be a legitimate consideration when undertaking comprehensive immigration reform policy.


If we can ignore the rhetoric and straighten out the misconceptions, then we can start dealing with the true issues. Maybe then fair and compassionate immigration reform can be attained. We can only hope.


1 Sampson, Robert, et al. Social Anatomy of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Violence, American Journal of Public Health, February 2005 Vol. 95 (2).

2 Butcher, Kristen F. & Piehl, Anne Morrison. Public Policy Institute of California. Crime, Corrections, and California. Public Policy Institute of California, Vol. 9(3), February 2008.

3 Kopelman, Alex. Memo to Bill O'Reilly: More Immigrants Equals Less Crime. Salon, April 10, 2007.

4 Dwyer, Devin. Border Mayhem'? An Illegal Immigration Fact Check Shows Violence Declining. ABC News, May 20, 2010.

5 Under federal law, hospitals that accept Medicaid are prohibited from turning away anyone requiring emergency care, regardless of their immigration status. The federal government does reimburse hospitals for a portion of what they spend on emergency care for undocumented immigrants under a program called Federal Reimbursement of Emergency Health Services Furnished to Undocumented Aliens.

6 Porter, Eduardo. Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security with Billions. The New York Times, April 5, 2005.

7 When the Social Security Administration (SSA) is unable to match a worker's name and number, the wages are recorded in the SSA's Earnings Suspense File. In 2002 the SSA reported that in 2000 about $49 billion was placed in this file. See SSA document A-03-03-23038.

© The Issue Wonk, 2010


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