The Flawed Case Against Immigration

We all know the buzzwords–no amnesty, no unfunded mandates, no immigrant welfare. Opponents of sensible immigration policy repeat these lines so often you’d think that they really believed them. But when one examines their actual positions, it becomes clear that they are little more than intellectual cover for their real anti-immigrant agenda.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan–revered hero of conservatives–signed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), which required hospitals to provide “for such further medical examination and such treatment as may be required to stabilize the medical condition” of any individual regardless of ability to pay or immigration status (42 U.S.C. 1395dd).

The Act makes no provision for federal reimbursement, so it is rightly acknowledged as an unfunded mandate. Conservatives were right to protest this; the federal government shouldn’t place financial burdens on the states or private institutions that it isn’t willing to cover itself. But the leap to immigrants abusing the EMTALA isn’t as easy to make.

Immigrants are more likely to be younger and male. They make fewer physician visits and have fewer health problems than the general population. In a massive study of over 44,000 Latinos, for example, “undocumented Mexicans had 1.6 fewer physician visits than U.S.-born Mexicans,” and that “other undocumented Latinos had 2.1 fewer visits.” (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2007)

A nationwide survey found that immigrants account for 55 percent fewer health care expenditures per person than native-born Americans. Even their children had 74 percent lower health care expenses. The authors conclude that their study “refutes the assumption that immigrants represent a disproportionate financial burden on the U.S. health care system” (American Journal of Public Health, 2005). Another major study of 12 major U.S. cities investigated the specific question of emergency department (ED) use and concluded that “noncitizens had much lower levels of ED use than citizens did (about 17 fewer visits per 100 people, on average), and the difference between poor citizens and noncitizens was almost twice as large” (Health Affairs, 2006).

Since immigrants don’t impose disproportionate costs, the empirical case against immigration based on EMTALA’s unfunded mandate holds no water. Moreover, immigration opponents aren’t even consistent about unfunded mandates. Arizona’s SB 1070 mandates local police to arrest individuals whom they have “probable cause” to suspect are undocumented. It forces local governments to pay all booking and jail fees. That is an unfunded mandate, as Mesa, Arizona, Mayor Scott Smith correctly noted. “This is not a cost-free endeavor,” he said in 2010. “And depending on how it plays out, it could create significant financial costs to the city.”

In fact, the vast majority of immigration laws impose unfunded mandates on businesses to act as de facto Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents under threat of fines or license suspensions. They require employers to monitor their employees and file reports on everything from their hours and wages to their housing, food, and travel situations. All this costs thousands of dollars. Just to hire one worker on an H-1B visa, for example, the employer usually pays around $3,000 for a consultant to help fill out the complicated paperwork correctly.

The online employment verification system E-Verify is an unfunded mandate that imposes significant costs on employers. Just last month, 60,000 Alabama employers missed their state’s deadline to sign up for the program. But the state realizes it can’t go after that many employers. Alabama Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katheryn Kennedy said, “Right now we’re not penalizing businesses. We’re trying to help them, to be a safe harbor.” In other words, they’re extending an “amnesty” to these businesses–an indirect admission of the law’s unfeasibility and a direct contradiction of their “no amnesty” mantra.

Not only does the anti-immigration crowd not seem to care about unfunded mandates or amnesty when those suit their purposes, their claims that are trying to costs welfare are also dubious. Since Arizona’s SB 1070 actually criminalizes work, or looking for work, even looking like you’re looking for work in “a place where unlawfully present aliens are known to congregate,” the law’s actual effect is to create more destitute and needy families who might use public benefits. Of course, this may be the point–at least to bolster their flimsy case against immigration.