An Immigration Reality Check for Iowans

Although it feels like the 2008 Presidential Election has been going on for ages, it only officially kicks off tonight with the Iowa Caucuses. According to a recent poll, the main issues on the minds of Democratic caucus-goers will be Iraq (28%), health care (22%), and the economy (20%). Despite the pressing nature of all of these issues, the number one issue on the minds of Republicans when they go to their caucus will be immigration.

While I don't think I'll ever understand this irrational obsession that some conservatives have with immigration, I can offer at least one reason why this issue shouldn't (in theory, at least) be their sole focus--especially in Iowa. In October of this year, The Iowa Policy Project (IPP) released a report on the economic impact of undocumented immigrants in the state of Iowa (see the press release, executive summary, or full report). The report, authored by Michael F. Sheehan and Beth Pearson, found that the average undocumented family pays about 80% the amount of taxes paid by a legal family of the same income, but the undocumented family is eligible for far fewer services. From The Des Moines Register:

A new report from the Iowa Policy Project concludes that illegal immigrants are not a financial drag on the state, contrary to the popular perception.

The group's report says undocumented workers pay nearly as much in taxes as citizens in Iowa, but they receive fewer government services in return.

"A lot of people believe that the illegal immigrant population uses more services than it contributes, and from this study, we see that's not necessarily so," said Eddie Mauro, of Des Moines, chairman of the immigration research team of A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, the church-based group known as AMOS that asked for the study.

The study estimates that immigrants in Iowa without permission pay between $40 million and $62 million in state and local taxes each year.


The Iowa Policy Project report compared the taxes paid by two hypothetical Iowa families making $27,400 a year. One family in the study is documented, and one is in the United States without permission.

The researchers found that the undocumented family would pay about $1,671 in taxes - $1,254 in sales and excise taxes, $110 in property taxes (as part of their rent) and $307 in state income taxes. That's about 80 percent of the amount paid by an Iowa family with the same income.

However, the undocumented family is ineligible for most state and federal benefits available to low-income American citizens, the report said.

In Iowa, the services available to immigrant workers in the United States illegally are a kindergarten through 12th grade education for their children, emergency health care and emergency food aid.

They are not eligible for unemployment benefits, Medicaid, Hawk-i children's health insurance, child care assistance or in-state tuition at Iowa's public colleges and universities.

"Undocumented workers pay somewhat less in taxes, but they're not getting a great deal in terms of services in comparison to other Iowa families," said Beth Pearson, a researcher who produced the study with economist Michael Sheehan.

The 80% figure that comes out of this study is based on pretty conservative estimates, and although it's not worked out in detail in this study, illegal immigrants are eligible for far less than 80% of the services that legal residents are eligible for. Based on these results, it would be totally unreasonable to call undocumented immigrants a drain on the Iowan economy. In fact, they are likely contributing more in taxes than they're taking out in services. That should make the hardliners think twice.

But, the immigration debate never has been rational, so I doubt that the anti-immigration ideologues will be interested in any of this. It's their loss, anyway. While the Republicans are out caucusing for someone who says the right things to stoke the raging xenophobic fires in their little hearts, the Democrats will come out in support of someone with a relevant reality-based plan for America: hopefully Barack Obama, maybe John Edwards... or even Hillary Clinton.

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Here's another example of how irrational it is to be anti-immigration: the American middle class benefits greatly from the low prices on fresh fruits and vegetables that result from the agricultural industry's use of illegal aliens to harvest the crops.

Second example: I and many of my middle class neighbors use a yard service owned by and operated by hispanics, some of whom speak no English and are likely illegal. Whenever anglos have provided me with quotes to cut my grass they have been higher than what I pay to the hispanics.

Third example: Here in Texas illegal aliens fill many restaurant jobs (cooking and busing tables.) I wonder how much restaurant prices will rise in Arizona with their effort to purge their state of illegals. Once again, this affects the middle class more than the upper or lower classes.

Lou Dobbs CLAIMS to be an advocate for the middle class but when it comes to immigration he's working against our interests.

One more point about Arizona: the class C apartment buildings are going to see huge drops in occupancy as illegals leave that state. I would not be surprised to see foreclosures rise there and property tax collections decline. Of course, sales tax collections will also decline as the illegals leave the state.

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 03 Jan 2008 #permalink

The posters are missing some of the issues. There is an urban rural divide. Cheap labor by illegal immigrants results in further deterioration of small towns and rural communities. Illegal immigrants send back much of their earnings rather than spending them in the communities where they live. In addition, illegal immigrants drive down the price of labor in rural communities and further contribute to the problem.