America's $2 trillion illegal immigrant liability

A Princeton Policy Advisors research note

Much of the focus regarding illegal immigration has centered on those eligible for DACA and the Dream Act.  The qualifications for eligibility are arcane, involving age, education, and date of entry, among others.  

A more simple approach considers only years in residence.  According to  Pew Research data, most undocumented migrants came to the US after the promised enhanced border enforcement of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act--which by itself is probably responsible for 3-4 million of the illegal immigrants in the US today. The strong economy of the Clinton years also drew migrants in large numbers.  In all, most undocumented immigrants came to the US between 1986 and 2000, that is, 18-32 years ago.  Very few have arrived since trough of the Great Recession in 2009.  Thus, the problem in recent years is not surging migrant numbers, but rather migrants who have become entrenched in US society over a very long period of time.

The question is what to do with them.  

According to a Monmouth University poll, Americans believe, by a margin of nearly 4-to-1, that "illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. for at least two years...should be given a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status."  Market-based visas would allow them to do just this.  Notwithstanding, Americans over time will be far more likely to grant permanent residency status to migrants than to support their deportation--particularly for migrants who have been in the US not two, but twenty, years.  Put another way, sooner or later, long-term undocumented immigrants are going to end up eligible for government programs.  

As these are long-term residents, the benefits in question will be those associated with retirement.  Very few undocumenteds have reached retirement age, but some will by 2025, and a large number will as we enter the 2030s.  And it will be pricey.

In 2018, the average Social Security benefit per retiree will amount to $16,428 for the year.  Of course, migrants granted permanent residency will probably receive far less, in part because their average wages are lower and because they started paying into Social Security later.  On the other hand, the specter of permanent resident migrants facing 18th century levels of destitution is unlikely to be stomached by the US political system.  By one means or another, the government will fork over a sufficient amount to keep retired migrants afloat, and a $6,000 / year subsidy might represent the lower end of what politicians' magnanimity is likely to deliver.

Add to this Medicare costs.  Eligibility is similar to that for Social Security, but again, just one story in the New York Times about a destitute, elderly Hispanic woman with a broken hip may create a climate sufficient to extend generous Medicare benefits to permanent resident migrants.  On average, Medicare spending is around $10,000 / year per Medicare enrollee.  

One might think that undocumented Hispanic migrants with low educational attainment, meager incomes and years of hard physical labor on their bodies would exhibit some fiscal discipline and die young.  But no.  Hispanics actually outlive whites by about eighteen months.  Their life expectancy after the age of 65 is 20.6 years, two decades to receive retirement and healthcare benefits.  On the other hand, older Hispanics, including low income groups, are notably healthier than whites, largely attributable to lower rates of smoking and alcohol use.  

We estimate, based on Pew Research data, that six million undocumented migrants have been resident in the US at least fifteen years, and of those, about 4 million have been here at least twenty years.

Do the math, and 6 million long-term undocumented residents averaging $6,000 / year in Social Security payments and another $10,000 / year in Medicare outlays translates into roughly $2 trillion of government benefits over the balance of their lives, some of which will be offset by Social Security and Medicare taxes paid.  It is a steep bill.

One would like to close a piece like this on a comforting note, but the sobering reality is that, if the government allows undocumented migrants to stay for decades, sooner or later these individuals will become 'common law' citizens, to be formally documented when the political stars align.  Given the progressive nature of taxation in the US and natural human empathy towards those in need, providing for retired migrants will prove a costly exercise indeed.  

Paradoxically, US taxpayers may be better off providing migrants permanent residency sooner, as it would allow a greater period of time for them to pay into Social Security and Medicare before their retirement.  In addition, some costs could possibly be reduced by entering into cooperative agreements with Mexico to pay a lesser amount to those who relocate south of the border.

Be that as it may, a majority of the US public will likely desire -- or at least condone -- granting green cards to long-term resident migrants.  Given the nature of US politics and government programs, it will be an expensive proposition.