Skip to main content

Myths and facts about immigration, from the ACLU.

MYTH: Immigrants are a drain on our social services.
FACT: By paying taxes and Social Security, immigrants contribute far more to government coffers than they use in social services.

In its landmark report published in 1997—arguably the most thorough national study to date of
immigration’s fiscal impacts—the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of
Sciences concluded that on average, immigrants generate public revenue that exceeds their public
costs over time—approximately $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in state, federal and
local benefits over their life times.1 This same conclusion was reached in 2007 by the Council of
Economic Advisers in their report to the Executive Office of the President where they state that
“the long-run impact of immigration on public budgets is likely to be positive,” and agree with
the NRC report’s view that “only a forward-looking projection of taxes and government spending
can offer an accurate picture of the long-run fiscal consequences of admitting new immigrants.”2
Indeed, most non-citizens are not even eligible for the majority of welfare programs unless they
are legal permanent residents and have resided in the United States legally for at least five
years. This includes benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SSI,
Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
Moreover, according to government reports, noncitizens are much less likely than citizens to use
the benefits for which they are eligible. For example, immigrants, especially the undocumented,
tend to use medical services much less than the average American.3 In fact, the average immigrant
uses less than half the dollar amount of health care services as the average native-born
citizen.4 Moreover, the claim that immigrants account for high rates of emergency room (ER) visits
is refuted by research; in fact, communities with high rates of ER usage tend to have relatively
small percentages of immigrant residents.
Likewise, according to Department of Agriculture reports, noncitizens who are eligible for food
stamps are significantly less likely to use them than are all other individuals who are eligible for
the program. For example, about 45 percent of eligible noncitizens received food stamps in 2002,
compared to almost 60 percent of eligible individuals overall.5
Most of the fiscal impact from immigration is felt at the state and local levels. The Council of
Economic Advisors points out in its report to the Executive Office of the President that “the
positive fiscal impact tends to accrue at the federal level, but the net costs tend to be concentrated
at the state and local level,” which bear primary responsibility for providing not only
health care but education.6
Still, according to recent studies from a number of cities and states—including the states of
Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, California, New York, North Carolina and Arkansas, and cities or
counties of Chicago and Santa Clara—while the cost of educating the children of immigrants may
be high, the overall economic benefits of immigrants to the states remain positive.7 A University
of Illinois study found that undocumented immigrants in the Chicago metropolitan area alone
spent $2.89 billion in 2001, stimulating an additional $5.45 billion in total local spending and sustaining 31,908 jobs in the local economy.8
The Udall Center at the University of Arizona found that the fiscal costs of immigrants, starting
with education, totaled $1.41 billion in 2004, which, balanced against $1.64 billion in state tax
revenue attributable to immigrants as workers, resulted in a fiscal gain of $222.6 million.9
Similarly, in its Special Report about undocumented immigrants in Texas, the Comptroller of
Date created: January 25, 2008 IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS PROJECT
Immigration Myths and Facts — January 2008
Public Accounts found that in 2005, even counting the costs associated with education, “the state
revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceed what the state spent on services,
with the difference being $424.7 million.”10

MYTH: Immigrants have a negative impact on the economy and the wages of citizens and take
jobs away from citizens.
FACT: Immigration has a positive effect on the American economy as a whole and on the income of native-born workers.

In June 2007, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) issued a report on
“Immigration’s Economic Impact.” Based on a thorough review of the literature, the Council concluded that “immigrants not only help fuel the Nation’s economic growth, but also have an overall
positive effect on the American economy as a whole and on the income of native-born
American workers.”11 Among the report’s key findings were that, on average, U.S. natives benefit
from immigration in that immigrants tend to complement natives, not substitute for them.
Immigrants have different skills, which allow higher-skilled native workers to increase productivity
and thus increase their incomes. Also, as the native-born U.S. population becomes older and
better educated, young immigrant workers fill gaps in the low-skilled labor markets.12
With respect to wages, in a 1997 study, the National Research Council estimated the annual
wage gain due to immigration for U.S. workers to be $10 billion each year13 in 2007 CEA estimated
the gain at over $30 billion per year.14 The CEA acknowledges that an increase in immigrant
workers is likely to have some negative impact on the wages of low-skilled native workers, but
they found this impact to be relatively small and went on to conclude that reducing immigration
“would be a poorly-targeted and inefficient way to assist low-wage Americans.”15
In addition to having an overall positive affect on the average wages of American workers, an
increase in immigrant workers also tends to increase employment rates among the native-born.
According to a Pew Hispanic Center study, between 2000 and 2004 “there was a positive correlation
between the increase in the foreign-born population and the employment of native-born
workers in 27 states and the District of Columbia.” These states included all the major destination
states for immigrants and together they accounted for 67% of all native-born workers.16
California, for example, saw an increase in wages of natives by about four percent from 1990 to
2004—a period of large influx of immigrants to the state—due to the complimentary skills of
immigrant workers and an increase in the demand for tasks performed by native workers.17

MYTH: Immigrants—particularly Latino immigrants—don’t want to learn English.
FACT: Immigrants, including Latino immigrants, believe they need to learn English in order to
succeed in the United States, and the majority uses at least some English at work.

Throughout our country’s history, critics of immigration have accused new immigrants of refusing
to learn English and to otherwise assimilate. These charges are no truer today than they
were then. As with prior waves of immigrants, there is a marked increase in English-language
skills from one immigrant generation to the next.18 In the first ever major longitudinal study of
the children of immigrants, in 1992 Rambaut and Portes found that “the pattern of linguistic
assimilation prevails across nationalities.” The authors go on to report that “the linguistic outcomes
for the third generation—the grandchildren of the present wave of immigrants—will be
little different than what has been the age-old pattern in American immigration history.”19
While many first-generation Latino immigrants are unable to speak English, 88 percent of their
U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. 20 And studies show that the
number rises dramatically for each subsequent generation. Furthermore, similar to other immigrants,
Latinos believe that they need to learn English in order to succeed in the United States,
and believe they will be discriminated against if they don’t.21 Most Latino immigrants (67%) report
that they use at least some English at work.22
California’s second-generation immigrants experience a large drop in “low levels of English proficiency”
compared to first generation immigrants, from 27% to 6%, and the proportion of immigrants
with high levels of English proficiency rises from 49% in the first generation to 79% in the
second generation. The proportion of both Asian and Latino immigrants, who speak English
exclusively rises from 10% in the first generation to 29% in the second and 94% in the third.23
Notwithstanding the current levels of English language acquisition for the newest wave of immigrants,
there is a demand for English language classes that far exceeds the supply and which, if
met, would greatly advance immigrants’ integration into American social and cultural life.

MYTH: Immigrants don’t want to become citizens.
FACT: Many immigrants to the United States seek citizenship, even in the face of difficult
requirements and huge backlogs that can delay the process for years.

Most immigrants are ineligible to apply for citizenship until they have resided in the U.S. with lawful
permanent resident status for five years, have passed background checks, have shown that
they have paid their taxes, are of “good moral character, demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history
and civics, and have the ability to understand, speak and write English.” In addition, people applying
for naturalization have to pay a fee, which increased by 69% in 2007 from $400 to $675, making
it much harder for low-income immigrants to reach their dream of becoming Americans.24
Despite these barriers, The Pew Hispanic Center’s report on U.S. Census data shows that the
proportion of eligible immigrants who have acquired citizenship rose to 52% in 2005, “the highest
level in a quarter of a century.”15 In the 2007 fiscal year, DHS received 1.4 million citizenship
applications—nearly double from last fiscal year 26—and between June and July of 2007, naturalization applications increased 350% compared to last year.27 In his testimony to Congress, US
Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director, Emilio Gonzalez, referred to this increase
as “unprecedented in the history of immigration services in our nation.”28
Yet, despite the promise by USCIS that backlogs would be eliminated, applications for naturalization
can take a year and half to adjudicate and of the 1.4 applications it received in 2007, less
than 660,000 have been decided.29

MYTH: Immigrants don’t pay taxes.
FACT: Almost all immigrants pay income taxes even though they can’t benefit from most federal and state local assistance programs and all immigrants pay sales and property taxes.

According to the 2005 Economic Report of the President, “more than half of all undocumented
immigrants are believed to be working ‘on the books’…[and]… contribute to the tax rolls but are
ineligible for almost all Federal public assistance programs and most major Federal-state programs.”
According to the report, undocumented immigrants also “contribute money to public
coffers by paying sales and property taxes (the latter are implicit in apartment rentals).”30
Date created: January 25, 2008 IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS PROJECT
All immigrants (legal and undocumented) pay the same real estate taxes and the same sales and
other consumption taxes as everyone else. The University of Illinois at Chicago found in 2002 that
undocumented immigrants in the Chicago metro area spent $2.89 billion annually from their earnings
and these expenditures generated $2.56 billion additional spending for the local economy.31
Legal immigrants pay income taxes and indeed many undocumented immigrants also pay
income taxes or have taxes automatically withheld from their paychecks—even though they are
unable to claim a tax refund, Social Security benefits or other welfare benefits that these taxes
support. In the Chicago metro area for example, approximately seventy percent of undocumented
workers paid payroll taxes, according to the University of Illinois study from 2002.32 In the
Washington Metro Region, immigrants paid the same share of the region’s overall taxes (18 percent)
as the rest of the population (17.4 percent), according to a 2006 Urban Institute study.33 This
study also points to the fact that immigrants’ tax payments support both local and state services
in addition to the federal government.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) holds that undocumented immigrants “account for a
major portion” of the billions of dollars paid into the Social Security system—an estimated $520
billion as of October 2005.34 The SSA keeps a file called the “earnings suspense file” on all earnings
with incorrect or fictitious Social Security numbers and the SSA’s chief actuary stated in
2005 that “three quarters of other-than-legal immigrants pay payroll taxes.”35 Their figures show
that the suspense file is growing by more than $50 billion a year, generating $6 to 7 billion in
Social Security tax revenue and about $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes.

MYTH: Immigrants send all their money back to their home countries instead of spending
money here.
FACT: Immigrants do send money to family members, making it possible for more people to stay in their home countries rather than migrating to the United States. Importantly, sending remittances home does not keep immigrants from spending money in the United States.

It’s true that remittances are the biggest sources of foreign currency for most Latin American
countries and surpass any amount of foreign aid sent by the U.S. The money sent by immigrants
to their family members allows many people to stay in their home countries who might otherwise
feel compelled to migrate to the U.S.
And while 51 percent of Latino immigrants send remittances home,36 they are spending their
money in the United States as well. In fact, a 1998 study found that immigrants become net economic
contributors after 10 to 15 years in the U.S.37
In addition to paying taxes and Social Security, immigrants spend money on goods and services
in the United States. A study of Latino immigrants in California found significant gains in home
ownership between those who had been in this country for ten years (16.4 percent are homeowners)
and those who had been here for over thirty years (64.6 percent).38 Furthermore, a 2002
Harvard University study of U.S. Census data found that there were more than 5.7 million foreign-
born homeowners in the United States.39 The study found that foreign-born new homeowners
are buying their homes by saving more than native-born homebuyers and stretching their
incomes more.
While homeownership nationally was approximately 69% in 2006, it was 60% for Asians and 50%
for Latinos—each group with large immigrant populations and therefore greater impediments to
obtaining bank loans.40 Although homeownership is largely correlated with legal status in the
U.S., undocumented immigrants are also buying into the “American Dream” of homeownership
in some of the most expensive housing markets in the country.41

MYTH: Immigrants bring crime to our cities and towns.
FACT: Immigrants are actually far less likely to commit crimes than their native-born counterparts. Even as the undocumented population has increased in the United States, crime rates have decreased significantly.

According to a 2000 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice, immigrants maintain low
crime rates even when faced with adverse social conditions such as low income and low levels of
Although incarceration rates are highest among young low-income men and many immigrants
arriving in the U.S. are young men with low levels of education, incarceration rates among young
men are invariably lower for immigrants than for their native-born counterparts. This is true
across every ethnic group but the differences are especially noticeable among Mexicans,
Salvadorans and Guatemalans, who constitute the majority of undocumented immigrants in the
United States. Even in cities with the largest immigrant populations, such as New York, Los
Angeles, Chicago and Miami, violent and non-violent crime rates have continued to decline.43
Even after taking into account higher deportation rates since the mid 1990’s, and reviewing the
1980 and 1990 censuses, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ascertained that,
“18-40 year-old male immigrants have lower institutionalization rates than the native born each
year…and by 2000, immigrants have institutionalization rates that are one-fifth those of the
native born.”44 In fact, according to the NBAR study, the newly arrived immigrants are particularly
unlikely to be involved in crime.
Cities like Hazleton, Pennsylvania have tried to blame a new wave of immigrants for a supposed
rise in crime. Yet, Hazleton’s own crime statistics taken from the Pennsylvania State Police show
that overall crime in the city has decreased and is now less than half of the national average.45

MYTH: Most immigrants are undocumented and have crossed the border illegally.
FACT: Two thirds of immigrants are here lawfully—either as naturalized citizens or in some
other lawful status. Moreover, almost half of all undocumented immigrants entered the United
States legally.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one third of all immigrants are undocumented, one third
have some form of legal status and one third are naturalized citizens. This applies to immigrants
from Latin America as well as others.46
Almost half of all undocumented immigrants entered the United States on visas that allowed
them to reside here temporarily—either as tourists, students, or temporary workers. This means
they were subject to inspection by immigration officials before entering the country,47 and
became undocumented only when their visas expired and they didn’t leave the country.

MYTH: Weak border enforcement has led to high rates of undocumented immigration. We should increase enforcement and build a wall around our border.
FACT: Increased border security and the construction of border fences have done little to curb
the flow of immigrants across the United States border. Instead, these policies have only succeeded in pushing border-crossers into dangerous and less-patrolled regions, and increased the undocumented population by creating an incentive for immigrants not to leave.

Building a wall along the entire 2000-mile southern U.S. border would be prohibitively expensive.
According to a study by the Cato Institute, rather than acting as a deterrent to those attempting
to cross the border, increased enforcement has only succeeded in pushing immigration flows
into more remote, less patrolled regions, resulting in a tripling of the death rate at the border
and decreased apprehensions, and creating a dramatic increase in taxpayer money spent on
making arrests along the border (from $300 per arrest in 1992 to $1,200 per arrest in 2002).48
Furthermore, increased border enforcement has actually increased the number of undocumented
immigrants in the U.S. at any one time. The increased risk and cost to immigrants of crossing
the border has resulted in fewer undocumented immigrants returning to their home countries
for periods of time as part of the decades-long circular migration patterns that characterize
undocumented immigration from Mexico up until the 1990s. Instead, immigrants stay in the
United States for longer periods of time, often choosing to immigrate their families to avoid
longer periods of separation.49
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 directed the Department of Homeland Security to construct 850
miles of additional border fencing. According to a report by Congressional Research Services, the
San Diego fence, combined with increased border patrol agents in the area, succeeded in
decreasing border crossing in that region, but at the same time there is considerable evidence
that the flow of illegal immigration has shifted to the more remote areas of the Arizona desert,
decreasing the number of apprehensions and increasing the cost.50

Date created: January 25, 2008 IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS PROJECT
1 National Research Council, The New Americans:Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of
Immigration, ed. James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston (Washington, D.C.:National Academy
Press, 1997).
2 Council of Economic Advisers, “Immigration’s Economic Impact,” Washington, D.C. June 20,
3 Rand Corporation. “Rand Study Shows Relatively Little Public Money Spent Providing Health
Care to Undocumented Immigrants,” November 2006.
4 Center for Studying Health System Change. “What Accounts for Differences in the Use of
Hospital Emergency Departments Across U.S. Communities?” Prepared by Peter Cunningham,
Health Affairs, July 18, 2006.
5 Department of Agriculture. “Characteristics of Food Stamp Households: Fiscal Year 2003,”
Prepared by Karen Cunnygham (Mathematica Policy Research Inc.), November 2004.
6 Council of Economic Advisers, “Immigration’s Economic Impact,” Washington, D.C. June 20,
7 Arizona:
Las Vegas:
New York:
North Carolina:
South Carolina:
8 Center for Urban Economic Development, University of Illinois at Chicago. “Chicago’s
Undocumented Immigrants: An Analysis of Wages, Working Conditions, and Economic
Contributions,” Chirag Mehta, Nik Theodore, Iliana Mora & Jennifer Wade, February 2002.
9 Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. The University of Arizona. “The Economic Impacts of
Immigrants in Arizona,” Judith Gans. July 2007.
10 Office of the Comptroller, Texas. “Undocumented Immigrants in Texas:A Financial Anaylsis of
the Impact to the State Budget and Economy.” Special Report. Carole Keeton Strayhorn.
December 2006.
11 Council of Economic Advisers. Executive Office of the President. “Immigration’s Economic
Impact,” Washington, D.C. June 20, 2007.
12 American Immigration Law Foundation. “Rethinking the Effects of Immigration on Wages:
New Data and Analysis from 1990-2004,” Giovanni Peri, October 2006.
13 National Research Council, The New Americans:Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects
of Immigration, ed. James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston (Washington, D.C.:National Academy
Press, 1997).
14 Council of Economic Advisers. Executive Office of the President. “Immigration’s Economic
Impact,” Washington, D.C. June 20, 2007.
15 Ibid Center for Research and Analysis of Migration (Department of Economics, University
Date created: January 25, 2008 IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS PROJECT
College London). “How Immigration Affects U.S. Cities,” David Card (UC Berkeley), June 2007.
16 Pew Hispanic Center. “Growth in the Foreign-Born Workforce and Employment of the Native
Born,” Rakesh Kochhar, August 10, 2006.
17 Public Policy Institute of California. “How Immigrants Affect California Employment and
Wages,” Giovanni Peri. California Counts: Population Trends and Profiles. Volume 8, Number 3.
February 2007.
18 International Migration Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
and the Urban Institute. “Coming of Age in Immigrant America,” Jan/Feb 1998.
19 International Migration Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
and the Urban Institute. “Coming of Age in Immigrant America,” Jan/Feb 1998.
20 Pew Hispanic Center. “English Usage Among Hispanics in United States,” November 2007.
22 Pew Hispanic Center. “English Usage Among Hispanics in United States,” November 2007.
23 Pew Hispanic Center. “English Usage Among Hispanics in United States,” November 2007.
24 Public Policy Institute of California. “Second-Generation Immigrants in California.” Karthick
Ramakrishnan and Hans P. Johnson. California Counts: Population Trends and Profiles.Vol. 6 No.
4 May 2005.
24 National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Press release. February 1, 2007.
25 Pew Hispanic Center. “Growing Share of Immigrants Choosing Naturalization.” Jeffrey Passel.
March 28, 2007.
26 Washington Post. “Immigrant Paperwork Backs Up at DHS,” Spenser S. Hsu. November 22,
27 New York Times. “Legal Immigrants Facing a Longer Wait,” Julia Preston. January 18, 2008.
28 Testimony by Emilio Gonzalez, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a
Hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. January 17, 2008.
29 SEIU. Press Release. Testimony by Eliseo Medina on Naturalization backlogs before the House
Judiciary Committee. January 17, 2008.
30 Economic Report of the President. Council of Economic Advisers. Washington D.C. 2005.
31 Center for Urban Economic Development. University of Illinois at Chicago. “Chicago’s
Undocumented Immigrants: An Analysis of Wages, Working Conditions, and Economic
Contributions,”. Chirag Mehta Nik Theodore, Iliana Mora, Jennifer Wade. February 2002.
32 Center for Urban Economic Development. University of Illinois at Chicago. “Chicago’s
Undocumented Immigrants: An Analysis of Wages, Working Conditions, and Economic
Contributions,”. Chirag Mehta Nik Theodore, Iliana Mora, Jennifer Wade. February 2002.
33 The Community Foundation and the Urban Institute. “Civic Contributions: Taxes Paid by
Immigrants in the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Area. Randy Capps, Everett Henderson, Jeffery
Passel, Michael Fix. May 2006.
34 Testimony of Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., Inspector General of the Social Security Administration,
before the U.S. Senate, Committee on Finance, regarding “Administrative Challenges Facing the
Social Security Administration,” March 14, 2006.
35 New York Times. “Illegal Immigrants Are a Bolstering Social Security With Billions,” Eduardo
Porter. (April 5, 2005).
36 Pew Hispanic Center. “Between Here and There: How Attached Are Latino Immigrants To
Date created: January 25, 2008 IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS PROJECT
Their Native Country?” Roger Waldinger (UCLA), October 25, 2007.
37 National Immigration Forum & Cato Institute. :A Fiscal Portrait of the Newest Americans,”
Stephen Moore, 1998.
38 Russell Sage Foundation. “Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the
Future of America,” Dowell Myers, 2007.
39 Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies. “New Americans, New Homeowners: The
Role and Relevance of Foreign-Born First-Time Homebuyers in the U.S. Housing Market,” Rachel
Borgadus Drew, August, 2002.
40 “Buying into the American Dream?Mexican Immigrants, Legal Status and Homeownership in
Los Angeles County,” Eileen Diaz McConnell and Enrico A. Marcelli. Social Science Quarterly. Vol.
8, No. 1. March 2007.
41 Ibid.
42 National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. “On Immigration
and Crime,” Ramiro Martinez, Jr., and Matthew T. Lee, July 2000.
43 American Immigration Law Foundation. “The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox
of Assimilation: Incarceration Rates among Native and Foreign-Born Men,” Rubén G. Rumbaut
and Walter A. Ewing, Spring 2007.
44 National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper Series. “Why are Immigrants’
Incarceration Rayes so Low? Evidence of Selective Immigration, Deterence, and Deportation.”
Kritine F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl. July 2007.
45 Zogby International. “Greater Hazleton Area Civic Partnership,” Michael Colgero, et al. August
46 Pew Hispanic Center. “Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the
U.S.” Jeffrey S. Passel, March 2006.
47 Pew Hispanic Center. “Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population.” Fact Sheet.
May 2006.
48 Cato Institute. “Backfire at the Border: Why Enforcement Without Legalization Cannot Stop
Illegal Immigration,” Douglas Massey, June 2005.
49 Ibid
50 Congressional Research Services. “Border Security: Barriers Along the U.S International
Border,” Blas Nunez-Neto and Stephen Vina, December 2006.
Date created: January 25, 2008 IMMIGRANTS’ RIGHTS PROJECT


Popular posts from this blog

Welcome to the WE project news blog!

Here you will find links to news articles and podcasts relevant to educating people about the continuing plagues of racism, bigotry and intolerance, in Missouri and around the nation, and to furthering the cause of shining a positive and celebratory light onto people belonging to marginalized communities. 

My first pick is a story in The New York Times magazine: