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Newsmaker Interviews

An insider's look at immigration from Steven Camarota
By Bill Steigerwald


April 09, 2006

Spend 30 seconds on the Web site of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Worse yet, try to get a human being who works for to answer a phone. You'll soon realize how horribly frustrating, complicated and bureaucratic everything about our government immigration system is.
jpg Bill Steigerwald

Amazingly, Steve Camarota has not gone bonkers from devoting his career to studying this maddening world of immigration policy. Camarota is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies (, a think tank devoted exclusively to researching and analyzing the economic, social, demographic and fiscal impacts of immigration on the United States.

Non-neutral in the raging political war over how to fix our broken borders and our immigration laws, CIS says it is "animated by a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted." I talked to Camarota Tuesday by telephone from his offices in Washington:

Q: If there are 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, how many legal immigrants are there?

A: Well, total foreign-born now is around 36 or 37 million. If you go with the 12 million illegals, the legal immigration is about 25 million. That doesn't mean they are all citizens.

Q: Is it still true that most illegals live in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and New Jersey?

A: It's still very concentrated. The immigrant population is spreading. But the top three states -- California, New York and Texas -- have about half the total. But it's getting bigger everywhere. It is more than 200,000 in at least 12 states now.

Q: And we're talking about illegals -- "undocumented" as we want to say?

A: Yes. I like to call them "pre-citizens."

Q: What percent of illegals are Latino?

A: About 80 percent-plus are from Latin America.

Q: I've heard somebody say that half of the people who get here come across the southern border and the other half overstay their visas, come by plane or are students who don't go home, whatever.

A: The last time anybody tried to estimate was back in 2000 and the INS said that, as far as they could tell, it was a one-third/two-thirds split. One-third overstayed and two-thirds were what they called EWIs -- entrance without inspection. Mostly, but not exclusively, around 90 to 95 percent came across the southern border. The rest were people who slipped across the northern border or who came in on ships in one way or another.

Q: So a fence along the southern border would do an important job of eliminating illegal immigration?

A: It is a critically important component.

Q: When we talk about social services and whether illegals pay more in taxes than they get in services, the number $10 billion a year is often used.

A: The $10 billion is what I estimated. They use $10 billion more in services at the federal level than they paid in taxes. ... The kicker for me is, if we legalize illegals and they began to pay taxes and use services like legal immigrants with the same level of education, the cost would roughly triple. An unskilled illegal immigrant is costly but an unskilled legal immigrant is a fiscal disaster because, although presumably he is being paid on the books and he pays his taxes like he's supposed to, he is now eligible for everything, or a lot of things, but he still doesn't make any money.

That's the problem. The reason immigrants create a fiscal cost is not because they are illegal. They create a fiscal cost because they have very little education and people with very little education don't pay much in taxes, because they don't make very much. But they tend to use a lot in services. If we legalize them, it makes the problem much worse.

Think about this: every unskilled worker who's paid on the books mostly gets our $32 billion Earned Income Tax Credit. That means that every unskilled worker comes with a bill. That's one of the reasons the costs explode so much if you legalize illegal immigrants. Right now, I estimate that illegals are getting one-tenth of what they are entitled to but if they began to get the EIT fee like legal immigrants, with the same level of education, well, the costs would go up 10 fold. That's a welfare program a lot of conservatives like, but it's also one that's very expensive.

Q: Is it true that illegals don't take advantage of social and medical services as those in their same socioeconomic class?

A: Put a different way: Let's assume uninsured immigrants use 10 percent less in health care than uninsured natives. It doesn't change the fact that they are 600 percent more likely to be uninsured in the first place. Roughly about 13 percent of natives are uninsured, but about two-thirds of illegals are uninsured. So it's probably true every illegal is using about 10 percent less than his uninsured native-born counterpart. But it doesn't change the fact that he is 600 times more likely to be uninsured in the first place. That is the kicker.
But the biggest kicker to keep in mind is that the problem here is that unskilled immigration is simply incompatible with a modern American economy that doesn't offer very much to unskilled workers and the modern American welfare state.

Now, if you'd like to get rid of the welfare state, OK. But always remember this: It's not about cash-assistance welfare, which is the thing that really ticks people off. If you want to save money when it comes to illegals, you have to be prepared to get rid of Medicaid, free school lunches for poor kids and things like the Women Infants and Children's program. Just say the name of the program and you can guess how quick we're going to get rid of that one.

I'm not making the case for it. I'm saying here is my position: If you want to have large-scale unskilled immigration, then you better get rid of the welfare state first.


Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review.
©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.
Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. to subscribers for publication.
E-mail Bill at

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