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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: 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.
Editors note: Former New Times staff writer Terry Greene Sterling is the author of the new book Illegal: Life and Death in Arizonas Immigration War Zone and is writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Jennifer Gaie Hellum assisted with research on white-nationalist groups. Sterling's personal Web site is www.terrygreenesterling.com.
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 the University of California-Davis and an expert on the contributions of immigrants to economies, tells New Times: "Education spending is always considered an investment, not a cost, because it adds to the productivity of the country."
And Daniel Griswold of the libertarian Cato Institute writes in a 2007 report, "The Fiscal Impact of Immigration Reform: The Real Story," that it would be misleading to "count the costs of educating the children of an immigrant without considering the future taxes paid by the educated children once they have grown and entered the workforce."
Educated voices of reason are drowned out by FAIR's populist appeal. If you want to measure the group's effectiveness at convincing Americans that illegal immigrants are an undue burden on taxpayers, consider this: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch supporter a few months ago of legalizing the undocumented already in the United States, now seeks hearings on whether their kids should be citizens.
"People come here to have babies," he told Fox News in July. "They come here to drop a child."
His assertion that parents illegally enter the United States just to pop out "anchor babies" to obtain parental green cards makes no sense.
First, under current immigration law, undocumented parents would have to wait for their "anchor babies" to reach adulthood before they could legally apply for parental green cards.
Second, if the parents live illegally in the United States, immigration authorities generally require that they return to Mexico and stay there for 10 years before the U.S. government will consider giving them green cards.
But this doesn't stop Graham's bluster. He's even hinted that he might introduce legislation to change the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizenship to most children born on American soil, regardless of whether their parents have papers. Graham was probably grandstanding; such an amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both the U.S. House and Senate and would have to be ratified by 75 percent of the states. (Alternately, two-thirds of the states could call a constitutional convention, but so far, this has never happened.)
The more practical path would be for Arizona to pass a birthright-citizenship law and then test it all the way to the Supreme Court at taxpayer expense. (Just like all the other Arizona immigration laws that FAIR has heartily supported.) And sure enough, fresh off his SB 1070 victory, Russell Pearce vowed he'd ramp up his efforts (a longtime FAIR fan, he's pitched "anchor baby" laws) to get a birthright-citizenship law passed in Arizona.
Pearce didn't return phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment for this story, but now that he's president of the Arizona Senate, he has publicly stated he will back off sponsoring the birthright-citizenship law himself and turn over the issue to his compadre in the state House, Representative John Kavanagh. It is unknown whether Kavanagh will introduce another of Pearce's favorite measures — a law that would require parents of kids with no papers to pay tuition to attend public school.
Such a law would work in tandem with a birthright-citizenship measure. Arizona would deny birth certificates to kids born to undocumented parents, and then the state would charge tuition because the children would not have birth certificates.
If a birthright-citizenship law were passed, it would create a burgeoning, illegal, illiterate, expensive underclass.