Skip the Study: Here's the Answer

Our elected representatives in Raleigh are now contemplating House Bill 744, which would require parents to state the citizenship status of their children when they enter public school. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem, pushed the bill by saying "we must have fiscal research of the impact that illegal immigration is having on North Carolina."

Well, I can save Folwell and his colleagues the trouble of passing the bill by sketching out here an estimate of the cost to state and local governments of illegal immigrants.

By my calculations, which I'll detail in a moment, the direct fiscal impact of immigration is negative: The state spends more to provide services to immigrant families than it collects in revenue from them. There are, however, indirect effects of immigration, which I won't be able to quantify with my quick math here. For example, immigration lowers the cost of many things to many consumers, which among other things makes North Carolina an attractive retirement location for wealthy, tax-paying retirees.

North Carolina spends about $1 billion a year educating the children of Hispanic immigrants. That's an easy calculation, based on the state's own per-pupil spending statistics, the state's own count of Hispanic students and the Census Bureau's estimate of what proportion of North Carolina Hispanic youth are the children of immigrants. The federal government pays about 10 percent of that $1 billion, leaving the state with a bill of $900 million.

The majority of children educated with this $900 million are U.S.-born legal residents. More than half of all children of Hispanic immigrants in the Old North State were in fact born in the U.S. - and thus have both citizenship and U.S.-issued birth certificates.

However, some of them clearly would not be present in our public schools if the nation strictly enforced its limits on immigration. But, for purposes of calculation, the easiest thing to do is to forget about this temporarily, and figure out what fraction of this $900 million cost is offset by taxes collected directly from Hispanic immigrant families.

The Census Bureau estimates that the Hispanic families of North Carolina, whether they arrived here legally or illegally, earn about $7.1 billion every year. Like all families, they see the state take a variety of cuts from this income. Some is withheld from their paycheck. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that Hispanic families spend about 85 percent of what they earn, and a large portion of this spending is hit with sales taxes. These families live somewhere, and thus either pay property taxes or have their landlord use some part of their rent to foot the tax bill.

I'll spare you the gory details, but my quick-and-dirty number-crunching indicates that Hispanic immigrant families contribute $660 million to state and local coffers every year. That is clearly not enough to offset the $900 million spent to educate their children.

Now, remember that many of these immigrant families are in the country legally, which makes it inappropriate to use these numbers strictly as a cost of illegal immigration. It's probably safe to say, however, that for every dollar spent to educate the child of an undocumented immigrant in North Carolina, the state collects less than 75 cents in revenue from undocumented immigrant families.

Then there is still the problem that immigrants do things besides send their children to school. If the House bill were thorough in collecting data on these costs, it would require fire departments to ask for faxed copies of birth certificates before they answer a call. State parks would position rangers at the gate to verify the citizenship of all entrants. Ferryboat captains would insist on reviewing legal documents before allowing passengers to embark.

Instead of going to those lengths, I can offer this estimate: since all of immigrant families' tax payments in my calculation go toward the cost of their children's education, clearly the revenue they add to state and local coffers doesn't cover all the other costs incurred on their behalf when they take advantage of public services such as police and fire protection or public health.

There is the answer the House bill supporters are seeking. Think what you want to think about whether we need to change our nation's immigration policy, but don't force North Carolina's parents and principals to waste their time helping the state perform a crude calculation that I've already done.

Jacob Vigdor is a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. He is the author of "From Immigrants to Americans: The Rise and Fall of Fitting In." This commentary was originally published in The (Raleigh) News and Observer.