When Florida governor Ron DeSantis tapped local funds late last year to start flying undocumented immigrants out of his state and into blue states, Democrats blasted him for trying to score “political points” with taxpayer money. DeSantis countered that the $12 million fund that financed the flights represented only a tiny portion of the money that Florida was spending on asylum seekers, after the federal government briefly detains them at the border, releases them, and they wind up in the Sunshine State. Florida hospitals alone had racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for uncompensated care to migrants, DeSantis noted—and the state had to subsidize those services. And it was largely progressive-led municipalities declaring themselves immigrant “sanctuaries” that helped attract record recent numbers of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, DeSantis argued, so it was only fair that those cities and states pay for sheltering them. “If the policy is to have an open border, I think the sanctuary cities should be the ones that have to bear that,” said DeSantis.
For many Democrat-led cities and states, those flights, and similar migrant trips to blue locales that Texas officials had arranged, have made much clearer the full price of dealing with the flood of immigrants released into the country by federal officials over the last several years. Because of their distance from America’s southern border, these governments had felt insulated from such pressures, but no longer. New York, a sanctuary city since 1989, spent $8 million a day throughout much of this year to care for migrants, including housing some 3,000 families in hotels for hundreds of dollars a night. Massachusetts—where liberal cities like Boston and Cambridge have also proclaimed themselves sanctuaries—scrambled last year to expand its shelter system to meet the influx. The projected bill for taxpayers: nearly $140 million, thanks to “the federal government’s inability to address our country’s immigration challenges,” then-governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, charged. Several Democratic states, including California, Illinois, and New York, have expanded access for illegal immigrants to social programs like Medicaid, deeming it humane. They now face eye-watering unanticipated bills, as illegals deluge the system.
The northward flight of migrants has changed the immigration conversation. New York City was being “destroyed by the migrant crisis,” warned Mayor Eric Adams. He complained that President Biden had “failed” the city and demanded federal aid to ease the crisis. Adams has tried to offload some arriving immigrants to suburban New York communities. A Democratic governor, Colorado’s Jared Polis, ignited his own controversy early in 2023 when he joined Republicans in transporting migrants to out-of-state cities, including Democrat-run New York and Chicago, after Denver declared a state of emergency because of an illegal immigrant influx.
Even if the southern border were completely secured, the costs of the massive movement of migrants into the U.S. over the last few years will reverberate for decades on city and state budgets. That price will include not merely the short-term burden of housing and feeding asylum seekers, but the longer-term expenditures of providing the newcomers with basic services like health care and education. Just how much these undocumented migrants will contribute, in turn, to America’s economy, given that many are largely unskilled and poorly educated, remains to be seen—though it’s unlikely to be enough to help balance municipal and state books anytime soon. Meantime, Congress and the White House neglect sensible reforms to the legal immigration system that would open doors to the skilled workers our economy needs.
In 2021, shortly after Democrat Joe Biden became president, long lines of migrants began heading to the U.S. border. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador noted that these sojourners saw Biden as “the immigrant president.” With good reason. During a Democratic presidential debate, Biden had blasted President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, saying (in garbled language), “I would in fact make sure that there is, that we immediately surge to the border—all those people are seeking asylum. They deserve to be heard.” Soon after Biden assumed the presidency, the surge he had seemed to call for overwhelmed U.S. immigration facilities. Detention centers mandated by the Immigration and Nationality Act to house asylum seekers while they appealed for permanent entry soon ran out of room. Federal officials started scheduling court hearings for immigrants’ cases far into the future, and then just releasing the migrants into the U.S.
Many relocated to border towns like El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona, where local facilities lacked the capacity to manage them. In one summer month in 2022, El Paso spent nearly $10 million processing new immigrants. In August 2022, border officials reported detaining 3,453 attempted entries in the El Paso sector; two years earlier, with the U.S. operating under a Trump presidential order that let officials expel illegal border crossers, the number during the same period was just five, though Covid had also slowed crossings. Illegals released by the feds also proved too much for Yuma, which racked up some $20 million in new hospital costs in 2022.
By late 2022, the immigration court backlog had swelled to 1.6 million people. Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, then a Democrat, ripped Biden officials for not preparing for the wave, though they knew it was coming, especially with the expiration of Trump’s immigration order. “The reality is that the Biden administration had two years to prepare for this,” Sinema said. “They chose not to do so, and I believe have dramatically underestimated the burden that Arizona will bear as a result.”
The chaos has shaken border state budgets. Several have created their own security forces to disrupt illegal border activity. Texas launched Operation Lone Star in early 2021, for example, spending an eye-popping $4.5 billion in the first two years of the program. So far, Texas officials say, the operation has caught 376,000 illegal border crossers, arrested 28,000 individuals suspected of other crimes, and seized more than 400 million doses of fentanyl. The effort has also tried to slow what one Texas county sheriff calls a “silent invasion” across the border of military men, many armed, whom officials fear work for Mexican drug cartels. In 2022, Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe observed, his deputies made 3,045 arrests for smuggling, compared with just 67 the year before. And those latest numbers represent just a fraction of the total number of illegals; the county’s security cameras recorded some 21,500 people crossing the border last year without getting caught.
In April 2022, Texas governor Greg Abbott and his then-counterpart in Arizona, Doug Ducey, asked Republican governors nationwide to contribute to border security. With the consequences of surging illegal immigration felt throughout the country, some 26 pledged support. “[E]very state is a border state,” Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin said. Many governors emphasized the importance of border security in stemming the fentanyl flow into their states. “We’re seeing the 20 times increase in fentanyl deaths,” Youngkin lamented. “Five Virginians will die today, and five more will die tomorrow because [Biden] has failed to secure the border.” Virginia sent about 100 National Guard members to the southern border to boost security. Cost: $3 million monthly. Arkansas and South Dakota were among the other states providing National Guard border deployments; Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska, and Florida sent state law-enforcement officers. Earlier this year, Florida increased its border task force in Texas to more than 1,100 National Guard and state police personnel, accompanied by state aircraft, drones, and boats.
The stepped-up enforcement isn’t limited to Republican border states. Earlier this year, California, working with federal law enforcement, launched Operation Blue Lotus, seeking to impede the supply of illegal drugs coming across the border into the Golden State and poisoning the streets of San Francisco and other cities. In less than two months, state and federal agents seized about 6,500 pounds of fentanyl and related drugs and arrested approximately 200 smugglers and dealers. Encouraged by this early success, Governor Gavin Newsom doubled the state resources dedicated to the initiative.
State and local social spending on migrants is exploding. In a 2021 lawsuit filed by Texas against the Biden administration after it froze deportations of illegals, the state listed $850 million of extraordinary costs due to illegals—including more than $579 million annually at public hospitals for uncompensated medical care and more than $30 million in prenatal care. Texas also reported spending about $150 million a year on incarcerating criminal migrants, and up to $63 million to educate unaccompanied immigrant minors now domiciled in the state.
Florida faces similar pressures. Hospitals delivered $312 million in uncompensated health services to a total of 111,475 illegals in 2020, and another $340 million to treat a similar number in 2021. Births to illegal-immigrant mothers are one of the biggest burdens on Florida’s health-care system. In 2019, one study estimated, Florida hospitals delivered nearly 9,200 babies to uninsured illegals, with an average price tag of $5,359 per birth. The same study estimated that the state was also spending $1.6 billion yearly on public school education for the children of illegals.
States farther from the border aren’t immune. A lawsuit filed earlier this year by attorneys general in 18 states against the Biden administration’s border policies reported hundreds of millions of dollars in migrant-related expenditures. Indiana, for instance, calculated that it is spending $971 million annually in state and local tax dollars for 207,000 illegals. And the price keeps mounting. Data suggest that roughly 10,000 additional illegal immigrants have come to Indiana since Biden became president, including more than 3,000 kids, meaning soaring new costs for medical care, education, and other services.
Another party to that suit, Iowa, calculated that it now has about 83,000 illegals, and that state and local government expend about $400 million annually in social services on them. Iowa also noted that it has boosted spending by “tens of millions of dollars each year for increased law enforcement,” necessitated by the growth of illegal immigration. Iowa citizens, the lawsuit contended, “suffer increased crime, unemployment, environmental harm, and social disorder, due to illegal immigration.” Though far from the southern border, Iowa “has been identified as a hot spot for trafficking activity due to the junction of Interstate 35 and Interstate 80. Traffickers bring illegal immigrants to and through the State,” the lawsuit said.
Mississippi estimated that it has some 45,000 illegal immigrants, 75 percent of them with no health-care coverage, placing a huge weight on hospitals, which the state must compensate. Its total expenditures for illegals average more than $4,100 per individual, the state reported—about $187 million a year. Kentucky, with approximately 94,000 illegals, puts its annual cost at about $430 million, while Oklahoma, with about 183,000 illegals, claims to be spending more than $780 million yearly.
All the attorneys general participating in the lawsuit against Biden represented Republican-leaning states. Until recently, those states had complained the loudest about migrant crisis. That began to change, however, once border states began shipping recent arrivals northward to states and cities that had declared themselves sanctuaries. The first landing place for many was Washington, D.C., where Mayor Muriel Bowser had affirmed, just days after Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, that the city was a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. “We celebrate our diversity and respect all DC residents no matter their immigration status,” she declared. From April 2022 until September of that year, some 9,500 illegals arrived in Washington from Texas and Arizona. Bowser then sought federal aid to manage the mess, including asking that the National Guard be called out—which the administration refused. Bowser subsequently declared a state of emergency.
Many of the Washington arrivals, it turned out, eventually headed to New York City, which had professed itself an immigrant sanctuary in 1989, when then-mayor Ed Koch signed an executive order telling local government agencies not to cooperate with immigration authorities. By the summer of 2022, 4,000 or so recent migrants were living in city shelters, overwhelming them. That turned out to be just the beginning of the inflow. Over the next 12 months, 80,000 immigrants would arrive in the city, with more than 45,000 remaining in city-provided housing.
More are coming. By June 2024, the city anticipates, as many as 70,000 immigrants will be receiving food, shelter, and other services, at a cost over the next two years of several billion dollars. That includes nearly $750 million in health-care and hospital payments in 2024 alone. To help house these individuals, the city has bought accommodations in more than 100 hotels and other facilities, including a $237 million deal the city signed with the Hotel Association of New York City Foundation to provide rooms—in some cases, at more than $200 per night. In one of the more pointed ironies of the last year, Mayor Adams began busing new arrivals to other parts of New York State, despite criticizing Republicans who had sent migrants to New York City.
Chicago, a sanctuary city since 1985, has received just a small fraction of New York’s number of migrants. But with its fragile finances, the Windy City has quickly found itself swamped. Early in 2023, outgoing mayor Lori Lightfoot said that the city had spent more than $50 million on housing, food, and other services for the newcomers—which it wanted the federal government to reimburse. Several months later, the city allocated another $51 million for immigrant services. As newspapers reported, asylum seekers were “sleeping on the floors of Chicago police station lobbies, thousands more in makeshift shelters.”
Debates over the spending got heated when some city officials, representing low-income districts, balked at the costs. “The problem here is, in the frustration, we all want to yell and point fingers at Texas,” one councilman said. “That’s not right. We declared ourselves a sanctuary city.” Chicago officials were angered when the state turned down their request for more aid, with Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker noting that Springfield had already spent $260 million on the new arrivals in the last year.
While most illegals cross the southern border into the United States, the immigrant surge of the last few years has also tested communities along the northern border, where, by some estimates, crossings have tripled. For many, the destination is Portland, Maine, which in 2023 has housed and fed 1,200 or so immigrants. With shelters full and limited hotel space, Portland turned its Expo Center into migrant housing for the summer, at a cost of $100,000, which the city hopes to fund at least partly by asking for local donations. Maine is pitching in with money from its general-assistance budget—roughly $33 million this year, triple its usual average.
One of the biggest immigrant-spending items is government benefits, which some Democratic states expanded during the Trump years to cover illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. Those costs are rising as the numbers of migrants increase. Medicaid is a subsidized health-care program for low-income people, with payments shared by the federal government and states. Federal law prohibits funding for illegals, so states like New York, California, and Illinois have decided to finance the entire cost of providing for them. California began covering young adults through Medicaid in 2019, and then extended the program to adults over 50 earlier this year. Next year, the state will give coverage to all illegals in California, with an estimated price of $2.6 billion.
The bill could go much higher, as states discover that their initial estimates understate the price for offering benefits to illegals. Illinois began expanding Medicaid coverage to illegals during the pandemic, with an estimated 2023 price of about $223 million. But the state and its auditors wildly underestimated actual enrollment and costs—the projected bill for 2024 was $1 billion. Facing that unexpected burden, the state trimmed its plan, but the price will still more than double this fiscal year, to $550 million, with enrollment 90 percent higher than predicted. Republican critics argue that the much higher outlays result from the incentives that benefits create for immigrants to come illegally to the U.S. and head to states with the most generous packages, like Illinois. “The sad fact is Illinois has become a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants,” one of the state’s Republican legislative leaders told the press earlier this year. “All I can say is, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ”
Some states, worried about the burgeoning costs, have cut back ambitious plans to expand programs to illegals. Nevada Democrats initially proposed giving Medicaid to all migrants, but the bill turned out to be about $300 million annually; they have since offered a more modest expansion, estimated at $90 million. Democrats in Connecticut, where children of illegal immigrants are covered up to the age of eight, wanted to raise the age limit to 26, with an extra outlay of $15 million a year. That idea has since been limited to include only younger kids, at $3 million a year more. Still, 13 largely Democratic states provide at least some Medicaid benefits to illegals already. At the rate that migrants are arriving and getting benefits, those states are looking at significant new spending for a program that already consumes a major part of most of their budgets.
Advocates contend that illegal-immigrant workers are due such benefits because they pay taxes in the United States. Supporters of the 1.6 million asylum seekers say that those individuals are here to work, too, and deserve government aid while they await legalization. Studies have suggested that unauthorized workers and their family members pay between $1.6 billion and $3 billion annually in taxes in California. The IRS has estimated, based on returns filed by those using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers rather than Social Security Numbers, that illegals pay approximately $6 billion in personal income taxes annually. “Undocumented immigrants pay billions in taxes to fund programs they can’t access,” the National Immigration Law Center says.
The flaw in this reasoning is that immigrant households already receive tens of thousands of dollars in government benefits, just by virtue of being in the United States, and that what most get in support far outweighs any taxes they pay. Studies that estimate how much people residing in the United States, including citizens, get from government, typically consider various services that everybody accesses, from schools to police and fire protection to roads and other infrastructure. The total benefit per household is typically far greater than most people realize. A 2010 Heritage Foundation study calculated that the average American household received more than $31,500 in government benefits annually. Immigrants here illegally received somewhat less, the study found, because they couldn’t access programs like Medicaid and Social Security, but their benefits still amounted to $24,721 per household. On average, those immigrant households paid far less in taxes than most American households—about $10,300 annually—producing a large net deficit that has likely expanded as states have started offering illegals access to expensive programs like Medicaid and, during the pandemic, unemployment benefits.
States bear lots of this weight. A 2017 study by the National Academies Panel on the Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration looked specifically at the state services provided to immigrant households, and at immigrant contributions to government revenues. On average across the United States, the study found, immigrant households generated a net deficit—that is, they used more in state and local government services than they generated in revenues—of about $1,600 per household annually. The deficit varies substantially by state. In California, the study put it at $2,020 per household; in Massachusetts, $2,250; in Arizona, about $1,350. Those numbers, when multiplied by the number of immigrant households in each state, add up to huge drains on public treasuries—nearly $19 billion in California, $8 billion in Texas, and $6 billion in New York. And those numbers are surely higher today, given the surge of migrants of the last two years—many not working—and the expansion of benefits in places like California and New York.
These numbers should not be surprising, considering the demographics of much of the legal and illegal migration flowing across the southern border. Studies have demonstrated that these newcomers are predominantly people with less than a high school education, who tend to work in low-wage service industries. Heritage’s 2010 study, for example, found that the heads of illegal immigrant households typically have a tenth-grade education. And these migrants, even when they become legal, tend to consume far more in government services than the average American household. A 1998 National Research Council report to the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform determined that more than 30 percent of California’s foreign-born were on Medicaid, compared with 14 percent of native-born households. Legal immigrants were also more than twice as likely to be on welfare as households headed by those born in the U.S.
Another argument for giving new arrivals government benefits is that the U.S. economy desperately needs new workers. Indeed, many industries report a hard time in finding skilled workers—particularly in manufacturing, health care, and construction. But encouraging waves of asylum seekers, as the Biden administration has done, is no answer to that shortage. Instead, the United States should reform its immigration policies to attract skilled workers, following the approach of many other countries, including Canada and Australia. By a large polling margin, Americans say that they would welcome more skilled immigrants.
But skilled workers seeking entry to America are frustrated by the immigration system’s low levels of work permits. In May, despite a nationwide shortage of trained health workers, the State Department announced that it was putting a freeze on visas for foreign nurses coming into the country, blaming a huge backlog of applications for work visas. Skilled immigrants applying for U.S. work permits have grown so discouraged that many have tried to immigrate to other countries. Recognizing the opportunity, Canada recently began trying to lure immigrants who hold specialized U.S. work visas by offering them easy entry and the promise of a smoother path to permanent residency than they face in America. Congressional attempts to increase the number of specialized worker visas and make it easier for these individuals and their families to obtain permanent U.S. residency, meantime, have stalled—a testament to the low priority that many elected officials and advocacy groups have placed on sensibly reforming our immigration system.
The kinds of migrants arriving recently, by contrast, have few resources and need to be cared for. Late last year, California’s Newsom estimated that his state had expended more than $1 billion merely to provide health screenings and shelter for asylum seekers. “With the respect to the federal government, we’ve been doing their job for the last few years,” Newsom said. The stark reality for states and cities is that, short of some unlikely mass-deportation program that sends most of the recent arrivals back across the border, the real cost of this staggering illegal-immigration surge on the public purse of American cities and states is yet to come.
Top Photo: Asylum seekers and illegal immigrants sleeping on the sidewalk outside the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, leading Mayor Eric Adams to complain that “New York City is being destroyed by the migrant crisis.” (JOHN MINCHILLO/AP PHOTO)