Welfare Is the Real Problem, Not Immigration

Published July 25, 2006

One of the big arguments for tightening immigration barriers is the fear that immigrants will enlarge the welfare rolls. An example of this fear was recently demonstrated in California at a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee in San Diego. “San Diego may be the gateway to Mexico, but our taxpayers are the doormat,” said County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Horn. “Every dollar spent on providing services to illegal immigrants or their children is a dollar that isn’t used on taxpaying citizens.”

The idea of people sneaking into the country in order to soak the American taxpayer provokes anger. To be fair, though, native-born Americans are already soaking the American taxpayer and ought to provoke a similar anger. In fact, illegal immigrants account for only a tiny minority of those currently on the welfare rolls.

Those who run the gauntlet of fences, guards, and environmental hardships to illegally enter the United States evince a measure of enterprise that would seem to make them unlikely to seek out welfare benefits. An illegal immigrant arriving in America is more apt to avoid contact with government authorities than to try to scam the system. The bureaucracy normally requires those applying for welfare to show a birth certificate, visa, or passport in order to sign up for food stamps or cash assistance. Illegals would need to steal or forge such documents if they are to game the system.

Rather than go to the trouble of trying to defraud the welfare system, illegal immigrants are more likely to proceed directly to vacant, entry-level, low-paying jobs. Working illegals are not a burden to the economy. They provide useful services and pay taxes to help support the government.

The concern that an influx of illegal aliens may lead to a potentially crushing welfare burden is not entirely unwarranted. There are political elements in the U.S. who view a rising welfare clientele as a key to electoral success. Inasmuch as reforms enacted during the 1990s significantly reduced existing welfare rolls, the power base of those favoring big government has been diminished. So, while the welfare system’s current drain on our economy cannot fairly be blamed on illegal immigrants, unrestrained immigration could significantly worsen this drain.

It is the welfare system that has sucked generation after generation of American citizens into the trap of dependency. The availability of government subsidies lures people away from the effort of work. The opportunity to get compensation for drug- and alcohol-related disabilities lowers people’s resistance to these vices. Payments made to unwed mothers undermine the incentive to take precautions against unplanned pregnancies.

These evils of the welfare system predate any problems we may perceive arising from illegal immigration. The pernicious effects of the welfare system would continue to take a toll even if our borders were perfectly impervious to illegal penetration.

In short, the problem isn’t Mexicans. The problem is the welfare state. Once government takes on paternal responsibility for everyone it is an open invitation to freeloaders–both at home and abroad. The solution is not closing our borders. It is eliminating the practice of robbing taxpayers in order to provide benefits for a client underclass. This would remove the disincentives for work inherent in the system. It would also return money to the private sector, where it could sustain more business activity and investment–providing more jobs for natives and immigrants alike.

Whether these clients of the welfare state are Mexicans or native-born Americans, the process of robbing taxpayers to support them is wrong. Focusing attention only on Mexican “invaders” turns the issue into one of race and nationality and obscures the moral wrong of theft.

People traversing geography in search of a better life is how the American continent was populated. There is no moral foundation for policies that attempt to close the doors so we can preserve the good life for us. There is no real us vs. them. We are all human beings trying to survive and provide for our families. The crime is that government coercion is used to force some to take on the responsibility of providing for others.

John Semmens [[email protected]] is an economist and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute