An ancient rumor about the purported costs of undocumented workers in the United States reappears whenever politicians use immigration as a platform, which is to say just about annually.
Studies on how much undocumented people cost United States taxpayers each year vary greatly, but this rumor’s claim that the total cost is $338.3 billion a year is false.
In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) studied29 different reports on the effects of unauthorized immigrants on state and local government budgets, concluding that there is no way to come to any authoritative number:
It is important to note, though, that currently available estimates have significant limitations; therefore, using them to determine an aggregate effect across all states would be difficult and prone to considerable error.
No comprehensive data has been compiled on how much state and local governments spend on services for undocumented immigration, but individual studies from across the political spectrum are at odds with the rumor’s claim that it costs U.S. taxpayers $338.3 billion a year.
The CBO study concluded that at least of people in the United States without documentation pay income taxes (and nearly all pay sales taxes):
The estimates that CBO reviewed measured costs associated with providing services to unauthorized immigrants that ranged from a few million dollars in states with small unauthorized populations to tens of billions of dollars in California.
Education, health care, and law enforcement were the highest areas of both state and local spending on undocumented immigrants. The CBO found, however, that they accounted for no more than 5 percent of total state spending on those services.
Even the conservative Heritage Foundation estimated in 2013 that the aggregate annual deficit for all undocumented immigrations was about $54.4 billion. The “aggregate amount” is the total cost of benefits and services received by all qualifying household with the taxes they paid subtracted.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a metastudy in 2017 that took a thorough look at the effects, negative and positive, of immigration:
Comparatively high levels of poverty among immigrant groups relative to the native-born translates into greater participation in safety net programs. Although safety net programs are aimed at low-income families, children, and the elderly, not all immigrants have access due to restrictions imposed by law. Unauthorized immigrants and individuals on nonimmigrant visas are not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), nonemergency Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) introduced additional restrictions. The former made lawful permanent residents (LPRs) and certain other lawfully residing immigrants ineligible for federal means-tested public benefit programs (such as Medicaid) for the first 5 years after receiving the relevant status. The latter also included a provision intended to prevent states from extending in-state tuition benefits to unauthorized immigrants.18 LPRs who were previously eligible for assistance (before the enactment of these laws) became ineligible to receive assistance under the major federal benefits programs for a period of 5 years or longer.
U.S.-born children of immigrants remained eligible for all programs, as they are citizens. Refugees and asylees also remained eligible for all programs.19
Although studies and estimates vary greatly, no data supports the claim that United States taxpayers spend $338.3 billion on undocumented immigrants each year.