Connecting the Dots on the Cost of Immigrants

I’m back to writing on immigration issues again.

I’m not here tell you that migrant workers don’t cost the American economy. I’m sure they do. Every adult in this country costs the economy something. But if we are going to have a proper debate about the costs of migrant workers to our economy, then we also need to look at what they contribute to our economy too.

This is an issue I’ve discussed before, but it came back to me this week because of two stories in the Dallas Morning News. The first story appeared on Tuesday, and while it was supposed to have been a story on how Parkland Hospital is petitioning the Federal Government for reimbursement of medical costs to migrant workers, the headline screamed something different:

“Migrant care costing millions: Parkland says price for nonemergency services tops $22M for year”

The second story that caught my eye ran the very next day. The story was, ostensibly, about the burgeoning black market for identity papers, such as Social Security numbers. But buried in this story about a swell in black market papers, was a fact that should have caught everyone’s attention:

Migrant workers have paid billions of dollars in taxes to the federal government.

My point in juxtaposing these two stories –from the same newspaper on back-to-back days– is that to have an honest debate about immigration, we must first be honest about what immigrants contribute to our economy. We’ve got to connect the dots between what migrant workers cost our economy/government, and what they contribute to our economy/government. And the truth is: they pay more in taxes than we give them credit for.

Take this one factoid:
According to the National Academy of Sciences, immigrants on average pay $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in government benefits over their lifetimes.

“How can this be?!” you say.

Well, I’ll just use the examples of Dallas County (where I live).

Take city taxes, for example. Migrant workers pay virtually the exact same amount as you and me to the City of Dallas through the sales taxes they pay. Like us, they shop at Wal-Mart and Target. They shop at NorthPark and Gaston Bazzar. And every time they make a purchase, they are paying taxes to the City of Dallas, just like we do. They are helping to pay for services such as police, fire, libraries, sanitation.

But also, take county taxes. And this where the aforementioned story about Parkland comes back into the picture. The story starts off by stating the following:

“Illegal immigrants got more than $22.4 million worth of nonemergency medical care at Parkland Memorial Hospital this year, officials said Tuesday. The cost estimate was the first time Parkland has quantified how much Dallas County taxpayers are paying for such care for illegal immigrants. “It’s a significant amount of money,” said John Gates, the hospital’s chief financial officer.”

Sounds pretty scary. Sounds like a terrible free ride, on the backs of all of us.

However, what this screaming factoid fails to account for is that a slice of Parkland’s revenue comes from property taxes that are, most surely, paid for by these same migrant workers themselves. Every property owner pays property taxes to Dallas County. (The story says that, on average, it’s about $370/house, and $348 million to the Parkland system…) And every landlord worth his or her salt passes that cost on to their tenants in the form of rent. It’s not a broken-out, special cost. But it’s in there. They’d be a fool not to include it. (Unless for some reason they are intentionally trying to take some kind of business loss on a particular property…)

The point is this:
A) Most migrant workers in the greater Dallas area pay rent
B) Most landlords pass their property tax amounts on to them as part of their monthly rent, and therefore:
C) Most migrants pay about what most other apartment dwellers pay for services at Parkland Hospital.

I was disappointed that the story by the DMN didn’t connect these dots together. In fact, it felt like the story was trying to do two things at once. Actually, it was a pretty good story about how Parkland is trying to get reimbursement from the federal government for the cost of migrant care. As, Parkland board member Richard Kneipper was quoted as saying: “We’re trying to stop Dallas County from paying more than its fair share.”

Can’t blame them one bit.

What I do blame them for, however, is not connecting the dots. Because while there is a helpful breakdown in this story of how homeowners pay taxes into the Parkland system, there was no admission that some of this revenue comes from the pockets of migrant workers themselves.

Common sense tells us they most assuredly pay these taxes. Just as they pay sales tax to the City of Dallas. Just as the story the next day showed that they pay taxes into the Federal system too.

By the way, they are paying a LOT into the Federal system. It’s surely not the total amount they would pay, were all migrant workers given legal documents and status. But it’s billions of dollars. And these are dollars that –because the underlying personal documents are fraudulent– none of these workers will ever see. As I mentioned earlier, the DMN story the very next day cited one expert who, using the Federal Government’s own numbers, believes that there is one billion dollars in the Social Security system for every one million migrant workers.

Read that last line again.

And get this thought into your head: This is a gift to you, me, and everyone else in our country.

It is a gift from these migrant workers to the American government and economy. A gift they will never see, and that can only go to help our economy and our government’s bottom line.

And can you imagine if this gift came to us another way? What if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that they were giving billions of dollars to the US Government?

What if they did it and said, “Use it any way you wish. It’s our free gift to you.”

I guarantee you, that story would be on the front page of every news channel for at least the next day. Everyone would be complimenting them on their generosity and magnanimity.

Friends, that’s exactly what migrant workers are doing every day, right now. Except almost nobody’s talking about it.

Another myth is that immigrants cause an increase in crime rates and therefore area burden to our justice system. This one dovetails nicely with the myths about immigrants not paying taxes. The theory goes immigrants cause excess crime, and then we have to pay for it through the taxes that we pay, but they don’t. (A myth I’ve just tried to address.

But, the mythbusting is even more dramatic, when you consider that many studies show that states with large immigrant populations actually have a lower crime rate. The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform has found lower crime levels among people who are foreign-born than those born in the United States.

Again, you may wonder, “How can this be?”

Well, common sense helps you here. You’d have to assume that undocumented migrants are doing their best to avoid suspicion and attention. They don’t want the jeopardize their already precarious position in our society. So, they actually commit *fewer* crimes that our native-born population.

Again, I don’t fault Parkland for seeking reimbursements any way they can. But I do question them singling out the migrant worker population, as if these workers pay nothing in to the Parkland system. And, if Parkland has done the analysis on what migrant workers contribute, it would’ve been nice to hear about it in the context of a headline that screams about how much migrant workers cost.

To my mind, migrant workers pay-in just about the same amount (proportionally, not in total dollars) as any apartment-dweller living in “The Village,” or in the swanky new “W.” As I said, certainly not the same dollar amount as these folks but, proportionally, about the same share. (Again, because of the cost is passed on the form of rent…)

Is Parkland going to seek reimbursement for the care of those who live in the “The Village?” If they were actively seeking reimbursement for the care of folks who live in “The Village,” I wouldn’t have single problem with their strategy. But since I haven’t heard that this is what they’re doing, it makes me wonder:

Why single out immigrants, and why now?

Without a clear answer, it feels like pandering to a hot button political issue. So, I’d love for Parkland to prove me wrong, and go after reimbursement for ALL apartment/tenant patients in the City of Dallas. Until and unless they do this, their strategy feels like pandering to the people who scream about how much immigrants cost our society.

Speaking of that, I haven’t written about the furor in Farmers Branch.
What a bizarre story!!

Lemme get this straight: EVERY single major problem in Farmers Branch is attributable to a rise in immigrant population?

Oh, come on. Surely nobody with a brain takes this seriously!

Actually, the scary truth is that lots of folks probably will take him seriously.

Paradoxically, one of the provisions that O’Brien wants Farmers Branch to pass is to make it illegal to rent property to migrant workers.

Wow, now that will solve the problem!! Take away the tax base by not allowing landlords to collect rents from tenants!! If he thinks he’s got a problem of a shrinking tax base now, just wait until that idea passes.

I haven’t spent a lot of time in Farmers Branch lately. But my hunch is that the situation there is pretty much the same as the situation in every suburb on the northern side of town: The booming growth has moved to the North…to places like Frisco, the Colony, and even beyond. That’s not the fault of immigrants. That’s just the way it happens.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was growing up in Far North Dallas, we secretly cursed the success of Plano (OK, maybe not so secretly…) because it was clear, even then, that the excitement and energy of growth had moved past us.

It doesn’t feel good when that kind of shift happens. But it’s relatively inevitable, given the growth patterns of North Texas these past thirty years.

What’s happening to Farmers Branch mirrors what happened to old, downtown Richardson fifteen-years-ago. In and around that time, dozens of Asian businesses moved in and set up shop. Now, when you drive down Beltline, you see dozens of shops (and even churches) with Chinese lettering on the storefronts.

Did some folks complain? I’m sure they did. But most folks seemed glad that someone was willing to move in, set up shop, and revitalize the area. And most of the City of Richardson today is glad to collect the taxes from all those successful businesses.

Again, I don’t know the exact situation in Farmers Branch. But my hunch is, the same kind of demographic shift is happening there too. And it has very little do to with migrant workers, and everything to do with the average age of Farmers Branch residents and the folks who own properties there.

Picking on the immigrant population may make Mr. O’Brien and his friends feel good. But at the end of the day, every major problem they identify in Farmers Branch will still be there. And, if they pass their law about renting to migrants, they’ll certainly see a drop in their tax base. So, here we come back to the “connecting the dots” issue again. It would be nice for the DMN and others to ask Mr. O’Brien just what his plan is for replacing that tax revenue.

Finally, it’s ironic that Mr. O’Brien raises these concerns now. Because just two weeks before, the Morning News also reported that a new study shows no impact on local jobs due to migrant populations. The study is from the Pew Center, and here’s a quote from that story:

“One of every six workers in Texas is foreign-born, but that hasn’t hurt job prospects for native-born workers, says a Pew Hispanic Center study released Thursday. The study comes as debates over immigration policy heat up on Capitol Hill, in congressional hearings around the nation and in political campaigns.

The nonpartisan center said that during the booming 1990s, native-born workers in Texas had above-average employment rates and the foreign-born population had above-average growth rates.

The study, based on census data, also didn’t find a link between foreign-born workers and employment rates for native-born workers in 2000 through 2004, when the economy slumped.

“There is no clear relationship between trends in immigration and employment outcomes for native workers,” said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at the Pew center.

“Others can draw the connection, but we find no relationship.””

And, the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, recently found that a legalization program would boost U.S. household incomes by $180 billion.

I’d love for someone to connect those dots and ask Mr. O’Brien about this too. And given all these realities I’ve been discussing here, I’d love for someone to ask him: how are his proposals a good idea for his city? How will they actually fix the ills he says that they will?

The bottom line is this:

If we are going to have a serious debate about the affect of the migrant population on our city and region, we must not only complain about the costs of having migrants among us, but we must also be willing to carefully analyze what they are giving back to us. We must take into account the gifts they are giving us in Social Security taxes. We must take into account the city and county taxes they pay.

We must honestly connect the dots, and look past screaming headlines or screaming politicians.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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