It’s hip these days to pick on immigrants. From Pennsylvania Avenue to Phoenix, we’ve seen public displays of hostility toward undocumented workers over and over.
Hostile politicians especially like to say that migrants are a drain on society. During Donald Trump’s recent speech to Congress, for instance, the president implied that immigrants cost “America’s taxpayers many billions of dollars a year.”
But among their many other contributions to American society, it turns out that undocumented immigrants pay an enormous amount of taxes — in fact, $11.7 billion in state and local taxes alone.
That’s according to a just-released study from the non-partisan Institute on Taxes and Economic Policy. That figure includes $7 billion in sales and excise taxes, $3.6 billion in property taxes, and $1.1 billion in income taxes.
This total is spread among states and municipalities ranging in scale. The largest is California, where an estimated 3 million immigrants contribute more than $3 billion in tax revenue. For comparison, that pretty well covers what the state spends on special education for all Californians.
All told, undocumented workers pay about 8 percent of their income in state and local taxes. Compare that to the wealthiest 1 percent, who pay just 5.4 percent.
In other words, those much-maligned undocumented workers pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than the wealthiest individuals in the country.
Unlike the tax contributions of undocumented workers, we still don’t know how much Trump paid in taxes during his rise from multi-millionaire heir to billionaire businessman. We can, however, surmise from his statements that the number is approaching zero.
Another way undocumented workers pay more than their fair share? Social Security.
A 2013 report from the Social Security Administration found that undocumented workers paid $13 billion to Social Security in 2010, but received only $1 billion in benefits. In other words, for every dollar an undocumented worker receives from Social Security, other beneficiaries received $13.
In contrast, deeply regressive payroll taxes ensure that the wealthy pay less than their fair share for Social Security. A cap on Social Security contributions means one worker earning $100,000 a year and another earning $1 million a year pay about the same amount into Social Security.
Not the same percentage — the same amount.
Trump has repeatedly undermined the contributions of immigrants in this country, most notoriously referring to them as “bad hombres.” He’s ordered a wall along the nation’s southern border, which would cost more than $21 billion and take more than three years to construct. He’s also suggested deporting all of the millions of undocumented workers, and has already authorized Immigration and Customs Enforcement to raid the homes of thousands of families.
On top of the moral horror this imposes on our nation, the economic toll is enormous. The $11 billion undocumented workers contribute in state and local taxes pales in comparison to the estimated $5 trillion over 10 years that they contribute to U.S. economic output, according to City University of New York researchers.
Unfortunately, and unfairly, undocumented immigrants serve as scapegoats. The role they play, but didn’t ask for, is to distract the public from the real problems facing the nation.
Our country, the wealthiest on earth, suffers among the developed world’s worst levels of childhood poverty. Our education rankings are tanking, and the opportunity for a child born into a poor family to enter the ranks of the affluent is shrinking. Rather than address these problems, our scorn is being directed toward “outsiders” and immigrants.
Facts matter, and the positive contribution of undocumented workers in the American economy is a matter of fact.
Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s a co-author of the new report “The Ever-Growing Gap: Failing to Address the Status Quo Will Drive the Racial Wealth Divide for Centuries to Come.”