FAIR-y Tales In the Immigration Debate

Anti-immigrant think tanks are aiming their dubious statistics at the 14th Amendment

As each law hits the news, FAIR or its sister organizations issue neutrally worded reports portraying the undocumented as social and economic burdens. The studies point to the urgent need for passage of the immigration law in question.

In the wake of the passage of SB 1070, for instance, FAIR advanced a copy of its new report on the alarming cost of illegal immigration in Arizona to FOX News. On May 17, FOX reported that “Arizona’s illegal-immigrant population is costing the state’s taxpayers even more than once thought—a whopping $2.7 billion, according to researchers at the public-interest group that helped write the state’s new immigration law.”

The FAIR report helped galvanize support for SB 1070 and for its boosters, such as Pearce and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who told the Arizona Republic that she signed SB 1070 in part because she was “cognizant of what the impact of illegal immigration was doing to the state of Arizona in relation to cost.”

Russell Pearce meets his fans at a June 5 rally in Phoenix
Terry Greene Sterling
Russell Pearce meets his fans at a June 5 rally in Phoenix
A demonstrator at the Phoenix rally speared his sign with a sword
Terry Greene Sterling
A demonstrator at the Phoenix rally speared his sign with a sword


Editor's note: Former Phoenix New Times staff writer Terry Greene Sterling is the author of the new book Illegal: Life and Death In Arizona's Immigration War Zone and is writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Jennifer Gaie Hellum assisted with research on white-nationalist groups. Sterling's personal website is

See also:
Fantasy Voter Fraud
Whose Dole is It, Anyway?
Mexican Macroeconomics

But the FAIR report that Brewer, Pearce and practically every other Arizona illegal-immigration politico relied on to get elected flies in the face of reality.

To start with, FAIR’s estimate of the unauthorized population in Arizona is overly robust.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates 460,000 undocumented people live in Arizona.

Recently, the Pew Hispanic Center lowered its estimate to approximately 375,000.

FAIR reports that 500,000 costly illegal aliens live in Arizona.

And FAIR has added a new demographic to the expense column: children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants.

Despite their constitutionally guaranteed citizenship, these children represent a major “cost of illegal immigration,” according to FAIR.

Nearly half of FAIR’s estimated cost of illegal immigration in Arizona involves expenses of U.S. children born to undocumented immigrants, without factoring in the obvious economic counterbalance—lifetimes of paying taxes, working and consuming. Adding these children to the expense column boosts Arizona’s “cost of illegal immigration” to $2.7 billion, up from $1.3 billion in FAIR’s 2004 report.

That’s a more-than-100 percent increase in supposed illegal-immigration costs in the face of a dramatic decline in the state’s population of illegal immigrants.

Longtime FAIR staffer Jack Martin—who is not an economist but rather, according to the FAIR website, “a retired U.S. diplomat with consular experience”—put the Arizona report together.

In July, Martin said he included in his report U.S. children born to undocumented immigrants as a cost of illegal immigration because they “wouldn’t be here” if their parents hadn’t been in the country illegally.

And if Mom and Dad returned to Mexico, they’d take their American children with them, Martin declared.

Asked why these same American kids mysteriously disappear from his report once they become adults and offset the cost of their educations by paying taxes, consuming and working, Martin offered no rational answer. He posited that once these children reach adulthood, they no longer represent a “cost of illegal immigration” because if their parents were to be deported, the adult children probably would stay in the United States.

Martin could not explain away the accounting trick at the heart of the “report” that helped justify SB 1070.

*     *     *

In July, as politicians around the United States eyeballed SB 1070’s popularity and drafted similar election-year legislation in their states, FAIR issued yet another report: “The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers.” This detailed report says illegal aliens cost American taxpayers $113 billion annually. It says each American household pays $1,117 yearly for illegal immigration. It says most illegal aliens don’t pay taxes.

Such numbers can only outrage millions of penny-pinched Americans already anxious about their own futures in uncertain economic times. But once again, the numbers defy logic. That’s because the misleading techniques in the Arizona report were duplicated in the national report.

Start with the population estimate.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 10.8 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States in 2009, but the FAIR report estimates a much larger population of 13 million.

And, again, as in the Arizona report, the largest single “fiscal burden” of illegal immigration is tied to American children. FAIR says it costs taxpayers $52 billion to educate the children of illegal immigrants, and that includes more than 3 million American citizens born to one or more undocumented parents.

As with the Arizona report, the positive economic counterbalance to education costs (the adult lifetime of productivity, consumption and taxpaying) is excluded from FAIR’s calculations.

But contrary to FAIR’s assertion, the consensus among many economists is that the U.S. government nets a profit from educating its children because educated adults pay more taxes and contribute to the nation’s productivity. “Many government expenses related to immigrants are associated with their children,” Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney write in “Ten Economic Facts About Immigration,” recently published on behalf of the Brookings Institution. “Both the immigrant children and children of U.S.-born citizens are expensive when they are young because of the costs of investing in children’s education and health. Those expenses, however, are paid back through taxes received over a lifetime of work.”

Giovanni Peri, an economist at UC Davis and an expert on the contributions of immigrants to economies, says, “Education spending is always considered an investment, not a cost, because it adds to the productivity of the country.”

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