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Topics / Immigration

Dollars & Sense: Making the Fiscal Case for Immigration Reform

The Immigration Project crunches the numbers

When the Solicitor General of the United States stood before the Supreme Court this April to argue the case of United States v. Texas, he sparred with Chief Justice John Roberts over a financial question: does Texas have standing to sue because, as the state claims, it would suffer irreparable fiscal injury if it is required to issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants?

Texas subsidizes the costs of issuing drivers’ licenses to legal residents of the state. The state claims that it would be prohibitively expensive to do the same for undocumented immigrants if they are added to the mix under the executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2014. That’s what United States v. Texas boils down to: the very narrow question of the cost of issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. For one seasoned analyst, it was “kind of staggering” that that was the only injury Texas could come up with.

But, indeed, the Texas solicitor general called it a question of “deep economic significance” to his state and the 25 additional states that joined the suit. Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor responded, “You keep saying that, ‘deep economic significance.’ Those nearly 11 million unauthorized aliens are here in the shadows. They are affecting the economy whether we want them to or not.”

No one understands Sotomayor’s point better than the Immigration Project, an offshoot of the State Priorities Partnership (SPP), which has been doing important work analyzing the economic impact of undocumented immigrants on the economies of Texas and the country as a whole.


For nearly four years, the nine state partners of the Immigration Project have been working together to influence the immigration debate with economic impact analysis. Under the leadership of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), these fiscal groups are the foot soldiers of the footnotes, crunching the numbers to inject a dose of calm, clear analysis into what can degenerate into—as one participating economist puts it—a “fact-free” immigration debate. Their work has the potential to hugely impact families, communities, and economies across the country.

But the Immigration Project does more than just supply dollops of data for think-tank reports and citations in friend-of-the-court legal briefs. The partners also work to refocus the public conversation about legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants, fighting fear and shattering myths. The project makes the economic case for keeping families united, documenting the positive impact that both legal and undocumented immigrants have on local economies, state budgets, and tax revenues at all levels of government. The goal is to bring fresh information into the public debate, and new spokespeople into the public conversation on immigrants. Countering “fact-free” with facts and analysis.


The Immigration Project launched in 2012, following a wave of often harsh immigration bills that had swept through state legislatures. One of the harshest was Arizona’s SB1070, passed in 2010 and quickly dubbed the “show me your papers” law. It directed local police to take on the immigration enforcement role usually reserved for federal agents. However, state lawmakers had failed to anticipate the economic consequences. The bill hit in the midst of a sluggish economy and boycotts of the state ensued. Arizona’s convention industry alone lost $250 million.

This was the pattern across the country. Immigration enforcement proposals rarely included any kind of economic impact analysis. Lawmakers weren’t getting the complete story. Information was limited, inaccurate, or even nonexistent. Tough immigration measures often had significant negative effects on state budgets, but lawmakers weren’t hearing about this.

The lack of reliable data troubled Geri Mannion, program director of the U.S. Democracy and Special Opportunities Fund at Carnegie Corporation of New York. Historically, one of the accusations leveled against undocumented immigrants is that they drain state coffers. Mannion understood the critical piece missing from the equation: the financial contributions that immigrants make to state economies.

A case in point: Alabama. The state passed restrictive immigration legislation with no revenue impact statement whatsoever. Racial profiling was all but encouraged by the law, and businesses began to leave the state. Mannion kept her eye on the economic repercussions. “It turns out Alabama is one of the biggest states for car manufacturing, including Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Honda,” she points out. Foreign-born auto plant workers were arrested, business recruiters lost projects, and immigrant labor became frightened and fled. Field workers in the agricultural sector grew scarce and crops went unpicked. Unfortunately, local fiscal policy groups lacked the resources—and perhaps the fortitude—to wade into the state’s immigration quagmire.

After observing the fallout in Alabama, Mannion had an idea. She reached out to the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Coordinating with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the three foundations decided to tackle immigration data head on—at the state level. Eventually, nine state partners—in New York, Colorado, Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia—sign on to the Immigration Project. The result? A coalition of fiscal policy groups that—working independently and collaboratively, as well as with a range of immigration groups—would gather the numbers and analyze them. The goal? To bring dollars—and analytic sense—into the immigration debate, especially at the state level.


Before signing on, most of the Immigration Project’s state partners had pretty much stayed away from state immigration policy. Few were expert, but all were game. These are small, scrappy organizations, with average staffs of about five or so. However, as one observer noted, “they all fight above their weight class.” It could have been a challenge for the state groups to connect, because they work on such diverse political and economic issues. But coalition building brings obvious benefits to small public policy groups, and the network coalesced.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) oversees and supports the Immigration Project. “We try not to be hub and spoke, we try to be more like a web, where you have strong points at different places in the network,” says CBPP’s Michael Leachman. “They know how to do the work in the states, but we will help them connect with one another, and connect with experts on particular issues that might be coming up.”

Immigration Project partners gather and share economic data on immigrants on a wide range of indicators, including ethnographic makeup and average earnings. Collaboration (funding and research) makes it easier for anyone new to the immigration debate to dive right in. Expert fiscal analysis provides a solid grounding for many of the policies that are being championed, such as letting undocumented immigrants get legal drivers’ licenses or making them eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. The groups do the “wonky analysis with lots of footnotes,” gauging the economic contributions of immigrants, both legal and undocumented, across the country, and then they do the social math, putting the issues into terms that people—especially lawmakers—can understand.

Everyone works together to mount a successful campaign or a defense. There is the organizing on the ground, the various politics of the states, and the economic analysis. There is also getting the message out. The groups produce reports, op-eds, blog posts, and graphics, and they push out social media—all of this goes a long way toward getting the information into the right hands. The American Immigration Council (AIC), a national partner, has helped train the groups to effectively frame the information, attract media coverage, and reach policymakers.

The work is important and timely—and it has reach. Each time a state group comes out with a new report or launches a new campaign, project partners have another model to work from, another idea to use. And these materials are handed out—even to groups not funded through the project to use in their own states. The Immigration Project has lowered the threshold to becoming involved in these debates.

Pro-immigration activists gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on April 18, 2016, as the court hears oral arguments in the case of "United States v. Texas." (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On the Ground: New York, New Jersey

Immigration Project partners have plunged into the immigration policy debate on different fronts, winning some battles, losing others, and fighting to a standstill elsewhere.

The New York group, the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), already had significant experience with immigration issues when it joined the partnership and now serves as a peer adviser, providing technical assistance to the other state groups. Their breakthrough study, Working for a Better Life, made headlines in 2007 when it quantified the immigrant contribution to the economy of New York State, with results that surprised the public, the press, and even the researchers themselves. The report demonstrated that foreign-born New Yorkers added $229 billion—more than 20%—to the state economy in 2005. (This figure combines the contributions of both documented and undocumented immigrants.) Furthermore, immigrants were hugely overrepresented among doctors, researchers, and nurses, and most strongly represented in fields like accounting and finance. So, contrary to popular perceptions, they were not all low-wage earning Hispanics. Most unexpected, perhaps, was the finding that immigrants played a disproportionately strong role in the economy of upstate New York.

When the New York group expanded its inquiry to major cities across the U.S., their grounded analysis demonstrated that immigrants were making a very real and largely unappreciated contribution to the economy of the country as a whole. That point was—and still is—being lost in the often heated public debate on immigration.

Next door, New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), the Immigration Project partner in the state, tallied the financial benefits of allowing unauthorized immigrants to secure legal drivers’ licenses. A coalition working to get a bill passed ran with the revenue projections, making sure the facts were front and center in a letter-writing campaign. The bill was moving well, until the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. Governor Chris Christie and state legislators argued that issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented residents would allow them to purchase weapons and board flights—perhaps even threatening national security. Switching gears from analysis to education, advocates reached out to the media to clear up misinformation about the bill, contacting policymakers to emphasize that immigrants are a tremendous economic asset to New Jersey. Collaborative efforts like the Immigration Project can help shift the debate and get good information where it needs to go. Even then, sometimes all the hard work does not pay off (the drivers’ license fight continues). But sometimes, it does.

Tuition Equity: Success in Texas

In 2001, Texas became the first state in the nation to pass a so-called “Dream Act,” offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who had come to the country as children. For many “Dreamers,” in-state tuition makes the difference between being able to afford college, and not being able to go to college at all. Last year, however, in spite of the program’s success, state leaders threatened to repeal the law.

The Immigration Project went to work, smartly framing the debate as an investment in the state’s future. They marshalled data to make a forceful case, but made sure that the analysis was accessible. This wasn’t a 60-page report with 4,000 footnotes. The fact sheets were highly credible materials that could be picked up, understood, and used.

The numbers were arresting. In 2013, fewer than 2% of students getting in-state tuition in Texas were non-citizens, yet they paid $51.6 million in tuition and fees. The taxes paid by undocumented immigrants each year are also significant. Working in the shadows, they contributed, according to data from one source, more than $1.5 billion annually in property, sales, and excise taxes to the state.

Armed with these numbers, students and business leaders joined forces to protest outside the State Capitol in Austin, while inside, legislators listened to “Dreamers” tell their powerful stories. Students were fighting for their families and their futures, and business leaders were fighting for the state’s economy. At the rally, Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Businesses, put it this way: “They work hard, they go to school, they graduate. They will be the future teachers, doctors, architects, engineers in Texas—if we allow this program to continue.”

Working together, students, business leaders, and a coalition of immigration groups helped derail this “bad bill” in Texas. Success in the Lone Star State inspired groups in other states to mount defenses of tuition equity, including in Virginia, where legislative efforts to roll back in-state tuition were thwarted—for now.

Shaking the Tree in Georgia

In 2015, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) joined the Immigration Project. GBPI Executive Director Taifa Smith Butler thought the time was right for her state to wade into the immigration debate.

“Every year there is anti-immigration legislation that is presented for consideration, or that passes in our state,” says Butler. “Georgia is projected to be a majority-minority state by 2030, and the Latino population is going to be a large part of that, so we thought, why not take the opportunity? We wanted to see if we can make the economic case about what immigrants contribute to the state’s economy, change the debate for a bit, and lift up this narrative in Georgia.”

Georgia has particularly intractable obstacles, says Butler. “As much as we try to fight with facts and data, sometimes people’s inherent biases are a lot stronger.”

Butler and her team are laboring to overcome the existing racial and ethnic barriers that filter into public policy. “It is problematic for our state long-term,” she says. “If we continue to block people’s ability to go to school, to work, and to earn a living—that will continue to drag on our state.” Only a handful of legislators are working to prevent undocumented immigrants from getting drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition. But, adds Butler, “They are loud.”

GBPI took up the thorny issue of tuition equity first, issuing a report calling for in-state rates for undocumented students, and estimating a $10 million annual increase in state tax revenues when those students entered the workforce. The Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance used the numbers to support its suit against the state’s Board of Regents. Unfortunately, this past February, the Georgia state Supreme Court ruled that the Regents cannot be sued. But no one is throwing in the towel. “One of our challenges, once we present these reports and do these briefings, is how to keep moving the conversation,” says Butler. “How do we continue to elevate it to a broader audience?”

Next up for Butler: building a case for the economic value of immigrants to the overall Georgia economy. “Connecting it to a larger narrative around the workforce is going to be critical,” says Butler. “We’re still shaking that tree, and then linking it with broader business needs.”

For example, some of the Georgia’s largest employers, including Home Depot, SunTrust, and AT&T, are having a hard time filling positions. To address this problem, one of the governor’s economic development initiatives aims to recruit talent from other states. But, says Butler, “We want our homegrown talent to stay here and benefit from these jobs.” A GBPI study found that in a single year Georgia’s immigrants paid nearly $1.8 billion dollars in state and local taxes, solid evidence that—as entrepreneurs, workers, and taxpayers—they bring a powerful boost not only to the state budget but also to the state’s overall economy.

The Immigration Project is helping to reframe the debate in Georgia. The GBPI keeps “shaking that tree,” and the support is there. People talk about the importance of collaboration all the time. For David Dyssegaard Kallick, peer advisor to the New York group, Geri Mannion and Carnegie Corporation “deserve a lot of credit for doing something that’s popular to talk about, but that’s not so easy to do, bringing together multiple foundations and multiple grantees at the same time.”

Volatile Terrain

Immigration is one of the country’s most complicated and controversial issues. It is not easy for nonpartisan fiscal policy organizations to move into such volatile terrain. The Immigration Project is changing that. The collaboration allows the state groups to combine forces powerfully—to plan together, to deepen their relationships, and to find ways to do the analysis necessary to really influence the debate. The collaboration, launched in 2012, came none too soon.

President Barack Obama charged into the debate in the summer of 2012, when he signed an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to live and work in the United States for renewable periods of two years without fear of deportation. Then, in November 2014, after immigration reform stalled in the Republican-controlled House, the president expanded DACA. He also added Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which granted undocumented immigrants, whose children are American citizens or permanent residents, work authorization as well as temporary relief from deportation. These executive orders—expanded DACA and DAPA—are at the heart of United States v. Texas, the most important immigration case taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in a generation. The case was argued before the court on April 18, 2016, and a decision is expected in June.

In Homestead, Florida, Rodrigo Hernandez, whose family is originally from Guatemala, attends a vigil with his family to protest against the deportation of undocumented immigrants, January 6, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Out of the Shadows

While the legal questions may be narrow, the outcome of United States v. Texas will be far-reaching. If the court sides with Texas, nothing changes. The lives of an estimated 4.5 million immigrants across the country will remain in limbo, and their American-born children will live in fear that one or both of their parents will be deported. But if the court decides that Texas does not have standing, that it has not suffered serious fiscal injury, President Obama’s executive orders on immigration will move forward. Undocumented immigrants will gain the ability to work—legally—in the United States for renewable periods of three years, and they and their children will no longer live under constant threat of deportation.

Never have the stakes been higher for undocumented immigrants and their families. If undocumented immigrants can drive to work, legally, they will be able to buy a car, purchase automobile insurance, pay gas taxes, and find a better job match. With better jobs and increased earnings, they pay higher taxes. And—the evidence shows—they will integrate more quickly into American life. That is the case for bringing undocumented immigrants fully into the economy and developing policies that help them succeed.

But it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court understands this “social math.” Without ever stepping into the courtroom, the Immigration Project played its role. They crunched the numbers that appear in the amicus briefs led by a broad range of organizations and community leaders in support of the administration’s position. The friends of court—including business leaders, economists, faith-based groups, educators, mayors, county executives, current and former members of Congress, and 16 states and the District of Columbia—agree that the numbers demonstrate that Texas’s speculative harm pales in comparison to the concrete economic, financial, and social benefits to the entire country if millions of people are allowed to come out of the shadows to live and work without fear.

(Illustration: Mitch Blunt)