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As the battle over immigration reform shifts to the U.S. House of Representatives, some opponents of reform continue to focus on the alleged costs of reform. Yet, as a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report reminds us, immigration reform involves both costs (in the form of health, education and other services provided to legalized immigrants) and benefits (in the form of federal taxes paid by newly legal immigrants)—and in the long run, the benefits to the US Treasury from immigration reform are likely to exceed the costs. Put another way, immigration reform will make our federal budget situation better, not worse.

A new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows that state and local budgets will also receive a new jolt of needed tax revenues as a result of immigration reform—and that undocumented taxpayers are already paying a substantial amount of state and local taxes across the nation. The report estimates that these families pay $10.6 billion a year in state and local sales, excise, income and property taxes right now, and would pay an additional $2 billion if these families were, as part of immigration reform, allowed to fully participate in state tax systems.

How are undocumented taxpayers contributing such a large amount right now? The main reason is that the sales and excise taxes that fall most heavily (PDF) on low-income taxpayers don’t depend on your citizenship status. Anytime you buy a cup of coffee, a pair of jeans or fill up your tank up with gas, you’re paying state and local sales and excise taxes. Property taxes are similarly unavoidable– especially for renters, who pay them indirectly because landlords generally pass some of their property tax bills on to their tenants in the form of higher rents. And many undocumented taxpayers have state income taxes withheld from their paychecks each year.

The $2 billion in new tax revenues ITEP estimates will be paid by currently-undocumented families as a result of legalization is the product of two factors. Most importantly, legalization will bring all undocumented workers into the income tax system. The best estimates are that about half of undocumented workers are currently “off the books.” But legalization will also likely bring a substantial wage boost for these currently-undocumented workers—further boosting state and local income tax collections as well.

There are, of course, costs associated with immigration reform. Newly-legalized families will (eventually) be able to rely on the same important public services, from education to health care, that U.S. citizens can depend on. This is as it should be. But the scope of these costs will vary substantially depending on how future political battles play out, and are virtually impossible to calculate on a state by state basis at this time – one particular think tank’s lonely insistence that they can notwithstanding. However, the recent CBO report’s finding, that at the federal level these costs would be outweighed by the benefits from new tax revenues, suggest that a similarly positive outcome is likely at the state and local level.  

The undocumented population is notoriously hard to measure —but under any reasonable assumptions about the size and income levels of this population, they are already paying billions of dollars a year to support the state and local services from which they benefit, and will likely pay billions more on legalization.

Front Page Photo via SEIU International Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0