A new study by researchers at Harvard Medical School pokes a hole in the widely-circulated theory that immigrants in the U.S. drain federal resources and cost taxpayers trillions. In fact, the study finds, immigrants have in recent years paid billions more into one major government program than they’ve taken out.
According to the report, released Wednesday by the journal Health Affairs, both documented, and undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have between the years 2002 to 2009 disproportionately subsidized the part of Medicare that supports payments to hospitals and institutions through a trust fund. Medicare spending accounts for over a fifth of total national health spending, states the Kaiser Foundation, and has become a major sticking point in the conversation over whether to extend health care benefits to immigrants on the pathway to citizenship.
“In 2009, immigrants made 14.7 percent of Trust Fund contributions, but accounted for only 7.9 percent of its expenditures--a net surplus of $13.8 billion,” states the report. “In contrast, US-born people generated a $30.9 billion deficit. Immigrants generated surpluses of $11.1-$17.2 billion per year between 2002 and 2009, resulting in a cumulative surplus of $115.2 billion.”
Most of that surplus was attributable to non-citizen immigrants, the study states, who were more likely to be younger and of working age than were citizen immigrants. It was not clear how much of the surplus came from undocumented immigrants, who under current law do not have access to federally-funded medical programs outside of emergency care. The study acknowledged that its analysis could be under-counting non-citizens' contributions, since undocumented immigrants may avoid government surveys. But the authors did use data from the Census Bureau, which attempts to count all people living in the U.S., even those living in the country illegally.
In the current debate over immigration reform, lawmakers have raised concerns over the cost of expanding health care coverage to the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Last week, a bipartisan deal fell through in the House that, in essence, would have required immigrants seeking citizenship to provide their own health care. Democratic leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, grew concerned that the requirement would force undocumented immigrants into bankruptcy, and ultimately, deportation.
“What might be the story at the end of this year, at the end of this session, is that Obamacare killed immigration reform,” said Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the eight House lawmakers engaged in private talks over immigration reform.
Earlier this month, a controversial (and widely disputed) study by the Heritage Foundation found that immigration reform would cost taxpayers more than $6 trillion because of the likelihood that new citizens would be dependent on federal benefits.
While the Health Affairs study looks only at Medicare expenditures, not all federal programs, and does not deal with health care costs of immigrants over their full lifetimes, the findings do cut against the perception that immigrants are "takers" and a drag on the economy.
“Economic concerns--including the worry that immigrants are driving up US health care costs--have often dominated the debate over immigration,” concluded the study’s authors in their report. “Our data offer a new perspective on these economic concerns.”