We have a problem. Illegal behavior is killing about 12,000 Americans each year, and costs us about $40 billion. Yet this illegal behavior is generally tolerated in all but the most extreme cases, and is generally winked at. Millions of us enjoy a measure of benefit from this behavior – freeing up our time for leisure.
The above paragraph doesn't refer to illegal immigration. Rather, it refers to speeding.
For some reason, illegal immigration has become one of the hot issues, a source of near hysteria, in this year’s presidential campaign – particularly for the Republicans. This baffles me. There are dozens of other issues - like speeding - that also involve illegal behavior and that are, nonetheless accepted as part of the status quo.
There are activists who take to the street to protest illegal immigration and then activists who protest the protestors. The topic has generated noise and emotion, and I guess that’s what counts for getting media coverage.
But for those of us neither inclined to see illegal entry into this country as a right nor see it as a serious threat, the issue has to make it on its merits. That is, someone has to convince us that the cost of reducing illegal immigration is less than the benefit.
We already spend about $11 billion a year protecting our borders from illegal immigration. The US reports that this money stops or finds about 750,000 illegal immigrants a year. Others estimate that the population of illegal immigrants still increases by 500,000 a year. So, for $11 billion we stop about 60% of those trying to enter illegally.
This raises a number of questions. 1, how does this expenditure already compare with other budget items? 2, how much more would we spend to stop how many more? 3, how much does it cost us to have illegal immigrants here?
1. At $11 billion a year, it is already double the amount spent on either the National Science Foundation or the Army Corp of Engineers (the agency that did not have enough money to shore up New Orleans levies) and more than the $7.5 billion we spend on the Environmental Protection Agency.
2. Marginal cost goes up as the task gets harder. You might stop the first 750,000 immigrants for about $15,000 each, but the next 500,000 will be harder to catch. This is obvious. If they were not harder to catch, we’d already be catching them. So, what are we willing to spend to catch the next 100,000? $25,000 each? And the 100,000 after that? $50,000 each? At some point, the additional $2.5 billion or $7.5 billion begins to look like real money. And at no point does the flow of illegal immigrants ever stop. The only way to even approach zero would be to halt all foreign trade and tourists – actions that would cripple the American economy.
3. What does it already cost us to have illegal immigrants? Well, given that they typically come here to work, most estimates of their economic impact are positive. Let’s instead assume that the impact is negative. Let’s assume that out of every 10 illegal immigrants, 1 has an upaid medical bill of $120,000 and two are here for free K-12 education, at $6,000 a year. This works out to be less than $15,000 a year that they cost us. This is a very pessimistic estimate but one roughly equal to the cost of stopping illegal immigration.
If you don’t get all misty eyed about the rights of poor people to enter this country or about the erosion of our sense of national identity, this issue breaks down into simple economics. Someone is going to get rich if we spend more money to stop more immigrants. If you are an average taxpayer, that someone is not going to be you. It might cost us $15,000 per illegal immigrant. It will cost us more than $15,000 for each additional illegal immigrant stopped.
Better instead to insist that the proponents of the move to spend more on illegal immigration make explicit the costs and benefits of their program. Nobody is proposing that we scrap the current program and simply allow illegal immigrants to rush in at will. The proposals before the American people are proposals to spend even more money. The question that deserves to be asked is, how will this benefit us? So far, I’ve never heard that question answered.