Rep. Scott DesJarlais wrote recently that "the illegal immigrant population in Tennessee comes at a huge cost to taxpayers." This statement is probably wrong.
In 2012, I authored a study on "A Profile of the Hispanic Population in the State of Tennessee" with the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. We were interested in exactly this question: What is the cost of Hispanic immigration to taxpayers in Tennessee?
In preparing that report, we compared a multitude of analyses about immigration, including those mentioned by DesJarlais. Not all of these analyses were entirely credible. For example, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which DesJarlais cites, tries to pin the blame for the rise in traffic congestion across Tennessee on illegal immigration. Claims such as these are preposterous—out of all the new adult residents in Tennessee over the past decade, only 16 percent are Hispanic. So it is important when evaluating these studies to scratch under their surface and to evaluate how appropriate they are for Tennessee. This is precisely what we did.
Our conclusions were varied. Hispanic immigration is certainly a benefit for the average taxpayer in Tennessee, rather than the huge cost that is claimed. If immigrants were to suddenly disappear, the great majority of Tennesseans would see a lower quality of life.
The hard work of immigrants reduces the cost of goods and services we consume. Home construction is cheaper. Food is cheaper. The cost of services—such as janitorial, housekeeping and landscaping services—is cheaper, increasing our quality of life at work and at home. In addition, immigrants buy food and clothes from our local stores, increasing the demand for labor.
But these benefits are not experienced by all—the least-educated Tennesseans do face direct competition from immigrants. But if we look at those potential workers in Tennessee in direct competition with many Hispanic immigrants, we see that immigrants comprise only a small fraction: For every Hispanic person in Tennessee older than 25 and without even a ninth-grade education, there are 13 native-born Tennesseans also without a ninth-grade education.
In terms of the state's fiscal situation, immigrants probably have a negative but relatively small impact on state and local budgets. But Tennessee is faring much better in this regard than many other states. Tennessee’s dependence on sales taxes means that immigrants contribute a higher share of their income at the cash register to state and local governments. But even with these costs, when all the benefits and costs are tallied up, the majority of economists agree that immigration is a net benefit for our economy. So in the case of immigration, we have a clear situation of personal gain for the great majority, but mixed with some costs that are distributed unequally.
We should see immigration as an opportunity, but also as an opportunity that is fragile. In particular, our current immigration policies risk creating an underclass of poorly educated, marginalized children, the majority of whom are U.S. citizens. It's important to think about how these children are connected to the education system and the labor market. Early childhood education, for example, is known to be especially effective for Hispanic children and produces long-term benefits that greatly outweigh the costs.
Without a doubt, it is difficult to provide the benefits these children need when their families are outside the legal residence system. But yet, these families are providing a willing, low-wage workforce that benefits the great majority of Tennesseans. We need to demand policy solutions that will realize both the short-term and the long-term benefits that immigration can provide. In this way, we will help to raise up young Tennesseans that are positioned to make us leaders in manufacturing and technology while enjoying a high quality of life.
Assistant professor of geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
The opinions expressed in this editorial belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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