News: CJ Exclusives

Educating Immigrants Costs Taxpayers

Some analysts argue that federal dollars should assist struggling systems

As public schools are looking for new sources of money, one potential source of savings hasn’t been much discussed: Why not ask the federal government to stop requiring that illegal alien children get a “free” (taxpayer-financed) education?

It turns out that the federal government, which imposes this mandate of a free education for illegals and which stands to reap most of the financial benefits if these aliens remain in the country, is trying to fob off the costs onto states, like North Carolina, that are feeling the impact of federally tolerated illegal immigration.

Three researchers at the Urban Institute, a liberal public-policy organization, say North Carolina, in the 1990s, had the fastest growth in immigrant population (legal and illegal) of any state, with an increase of 274 percent. Two of these same researchers say 40 percent to 49 percent of North Carolina’s new immigrants are undocumented.

The total foreign-born population of North Carolina in 2000, according to the U. S. Census, was 430,000, including legal and illegal immigrants. The federal government estimates an illegal immigrant population of 206,000 in North Carolina. Urban Institute demographer Jeffrey Passel and his colleagues put the total illegal figure more in the 250,000 to 350,000 range. The number of illegal aliens in K-12 public schools would be a fraction of this figure, but probably more than 10 percent.

The most comprehensive nationwide study of the impact of immigrants was published in 1997 by the National Research Council, as part of its comprehensive work The New Americans. The study, which did not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, compared what immigrants obtained from the local, state, and federal governments in services with what they contributed to those governments in taxes. In the short term, the study calculated that immigrants imposed a “negative fiscal impact.” In the long term, the study estimated that an average immigrant would have a positive fiscal impact vis-a-vis the federal government, i. e., the average immigrant would be worth $110,000 to the federal government (federal taxes paid minus federal benefits received) over a lifetime (in 1996 dollars).

That same average immigrant would have a net negative fiscal impact of $22,000 on the state and local level, i. e., the immigrant would get $22,000 more in state and local services than he paid in state and local taxes (this estimate is based on an “alternative scenario” which tried to take into account the then-recent federal welfare-reform law of 1996). Thus, immigrants would be beneficial to the federal government in the long term, but harmful to the state governments both in the short term and in the long term.

The application of this to North Carolina requires some caution. The researchers emphasized that the negative fiscal impact of immigration was not evenly distributed among the states and localities. The worst impact would be on those states and localities with high immigrant concentrations — states such as California, Texas, and Florida. States with lower immigrant populations would not absorb as many costs. Where the costs of public education for illegal immigrants is concerned, however, North Carolina seems to be incurring costs that aren’t being reimbursed by the state’s illegal inhabitants, or by the federal government.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group seeking to restrict American immigration (legal and illegal), estimates that the annual cost of educating illegal immigrant children is $195,685,286. Passel thinks that FAIR’s calculations, using “standard methodology,” are not “wildly out of line,” although he thinks FAIR is presenting only part of a complex picture.

One factor not included in FAIR’s calculations is the cost of English as a Second Language programs, for which illegal immigrants often have a great need. Fran Hoch, a section chief at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, whose purview includes English as a second language, says North Carolina had gotten $7.9 million from the federal government for the instruction of Limited English Proficiency students, courtesy of the federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002.

North Carolina schools group LEP students together, without distinction based on legal status, but presumably a goodly share of the LEP population is made up of illegal immigrants. The federal NCLB grant “doesn’t meet all of the needs” of the LEP students, Hoch said, leading the state to appropriate $33 million in grants for local school districts addressing the needs of this population.

Anyone who wonders why North Carolina taxpayers are paying for the education of students who aren’t legally in this country has to confront the decision of the U. S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe. The 5-4 decision, handed down in 1982, says illegal alien children are entitled to attend American public schools for free.

The rationale for this decision was that refusing a free education to illegal alien children denied them the “the equal protection of the laws,” contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. The court held that this sort of discrimination is OK only if it promotes “some substantial state interest.” After some analysis, the court concluded that no such substantial interest was promoted by denying free education to illegals.

The majority justices said that “the States do have some authority to act with respect to illegal aliens, at least where such action mirrors federal objectives and furthers a legitimate state goal.” However, in this case, the court said “there is no indication that that” excluding illegal aliens from the benefits of free public education in this case “corresponds to any identifiable congressional policy.”

“We are reluctant,” the court said, “to impute to Congress the intention to withhold from these children, for so long as they are present in this country through no fault of their own, access to a basic education.” Since Congress hadn’t endorsed this sort of educational discrimination in the federal immigration laws, the states’ legal justification for such discrimination was reduced.

Some of the court’s language suggested that Congress might be able to, in effect, overrule the Plyler decision by amending federal immigration laws and allowing the states to cut off free public education for illegal immigrants.