EDITOR’S NOTE: Julianne Hing is covering the collision of politics and immigration in the 2016 campaign. But we need your support to get her on the campaign trail—and Beacon Reader will double every dollar you donate! This is the final two days of our campaign! Donate today to make more of this reporting possible.
In the rural Arkansas town where Marisol Soto grew up, the 21-year-old student was the only undocumented immigrant in her high school. Her immigration status isolated her, but it also gave her a window into how little her neighbors understood about the realities of the issue. “It’s the South. It’s very country, and my story is not common here,” Soto told me. “They don’t know how we get here. They don’t know we have to cross a desert, cross rivers, to get to this country.”
But it wasn’t until the ascendance of Donald Trump this summer that Soto decided she had to start responding to the stereotype of undocumented immigrants as law-breaking, job-stealing murderers and rapists. “Hearing all these comments thanks to Donald Trump getting everyone all riled up, I had to find a way to fix it.”
Her answer was #Undocumoney, a social-media campaign meant to correct the belief that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. In a short video, Soto ticks off report findings that show undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for many public programs, including federal student aid, Medicaid and Medicare, and Social Security, nonetheless pay into those systems. They are financing public investment programs, even as they’re barred from accessing the benefits.
Soto’s campaign resonated—grabbing headlines and airtime on Telemundo, the New York Daily News, and NBC—in part because so much of the political fight over immigration has been waged with misleading facts and figures. At the second GOP debate, for example, Trump repeatedly harped on a mysterious $200 billion the U.S. is supposedly spending annually to “maintain what we have” when it comes to undocumented immigrants. It’s still unclear what Trump was even referring to with the figure. (The cost of deporting every single undocumented immigrant from the country, as Trump would also like, has been estimated at $140 billion.)
So here are three simple facts to ground further debate over the supposed costs of undocumented immigration.
#1 Yes, undocumented immigrants pay taxes.
And they do so in multiple forms. Undocumented immigrants are not just workers, they’re also consumers who must pay standard sales and excise taxes. According to an April 2015 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $11.8 billion in state and local taxes in 2012. According to ITEP, half of undocumented immigrant households file income taxes using special ID numbers issued by the federal government to those who don’t have Social Security numbers.
#2 Undocumented immigrants are a net financial gain for Social Security, in particular.
In 2013, the Social Security Administration estimated that for the year 2010, undocumented immigrants paid $12 billion in excess tax revenue into Social Security—money they cannot currently withdraw. Or, as the SSA’s brief put it, “earnings by unauthorized immigrants result in a net positive effect on Social Security financial status generally.”
It’s true that while undocumented immigrants constitute an often unacknowledged boon for the federal government, studies have concluded that they tend to use more in local and state public services than they pay into those systems, the Congressional Budget Office found in 2007. But even subtracting the cost of local and state services for which undocumented immigrants are eligible—public education, for instance—from what they contribute in taxes, the CBO found that the “net impact of the unauthorized population on state and local budget…is most likely modest.”
But it’s not the numbers Trump and other GOP candidates have spouted off that have left the deepest impression on Soto; it’s the harmful idea that undocumented immigrants are leeches on the US economy. “He did not use the word ‘parasite’—but after hearing him say that we are more of a burden than a help to this country, that’s how it made me feel,” Soto said.
Her campaign asks supporters to stamp US currency with the phrase “#undocumoney” to show that even those who don’t have the authorization to be in the U.S. contribute to the economy. On Instagram, over 400 posts have included the tag in photos of people fanning their payday earnings or just taking photos of cold hard cash. “We’ve gotten e-mails from teachers saying: You’ve given me information I was not aware of,” Soto says. She adds that even “people who adore the Confederate flag” have told her she’s brave for speaking up.
“The problem with immigration is ignorance, and if you inform people of what’s really going on I think we would have so much better of a reaction,” Soto said.
#3 But the “cost” of undocumented immigration isn’t even the point.
Unfortunately, there’s a deeper racialized xenophobia that abets the kind of ignorance Soto wants to fight—one that facts and figures just can’t combat. The belief that immigrants are dirty and diseased thieves is so worn, and so reliable a fear-mongering tactic that casting them as such is practically engraved into the modern (and historical) US electoral politics playbook.
In 1994, the year Soto was born, California Governor Pete Wilson ran for reelection while campaigning hard for Prop 187, a ballot initiative that sought to cut off undocumented immigrants from access to education, healthcare, and other social services. His now infamous political ad from the campaign casts immigrants from Mexico as an invading force and contrasts surveillance footage of migrants crossing into California from Mexico with shots of the Statue of Liberty. There are the exploitative law-breakers, and there are the rest of us, the ad implies.
“For Californians who work hard, pay taxes, and obey the laws … I’m working to deny state services to illegal immigrants. Enough is enough,” WIlson said, looking the camera straight on. The implication about who didn’t work hard, who failed to pay taxes, and who broke the laws was clear.
Wilson won and Prop 187 passed (but not before forever damaging the Republican Party in California, according to some).
The debate over whether immigrants do or don’t pay taxes is, in other words, a very old one. Or, as William Gaston, a domestic policy adviser in President Bill Clinton’s administration, told the Fiscal Times, “I’ve been listening to this argument for so long I can no longer figure out what’s new about it.”
That’s why some argue that those who support undocumented immigrants do themselves a disservice by focusing narrowly on correcting lies about dollars and cents. “When we’re positioned as and only valued as and only advocated for in terms of what we can contribute economically, we leave out so many people,” says Sonia Guinansaca, a writer and staffer at CultureStrike, a pro-immigrant arts organization.
Economic arguments in particular, even those in favor of undocumented immigrants, are inherently limiting. Campaigns like #Undocumoney are confined to a political frame in which we can only understand immigrants’ worth in terms of the labor they bring the country, says Alex Aldana, a community organizer who’s based in Los Angeles. Aldana grew up in Southern California, in a family of farmworkers who traveled up and down the farms in the Central Valley throughout the year to work the state’s $20 billion agriculture business.
Aldana contributed to #MigrantsOverMoney, a social-media response to #Undocumoney. “One of the biggest conversations from one election to another is always money and how much [immigrants] contribute,” Aldana said. “But to me that’s a given. We live in a capitalist country as economic refugees who had to migrate.”
Undocumented immigrants’ taxes, like everyone else’s, have funded an aggressive era in immigration enforcement, with record-breaking deportations and unlawful detention practices as the new norm. Immigration detention is big business, and increasingly run by corrections corporations. Aldana, who has been held in immigration detention, pointed out that while he was detained, eight hours of labor netted him $1.
#MigrantsOverMoney is a loose call to expand the parameters of the conversation. Supporters are asked to share their stories over social media and include the tag—along with #Undocumoney’s. It’s more a retort than a provocation.
“I find it funny that we are trying to justify our worth through money,” Aldana said, “when there are companies making money off our communities being detained.”
Soto’s aware of the critique of her project. “I’m the last person to ever put a price on anyone’s life,” Soto countered. “I have lived around racism my entire life and the reason I approach this the way I do is because all this racism has taught me that at least in Arkansas, all these Americans feel threatened by us.”
“And they don’t like it whenever we are aggressive,” Soto said.
She and Aldana embody a classic fissure in social-justice politics, a difference in approaches that’s been around at least as long as politicians on the right have sought to reduce immigrants into flat caricatures of actual human beings.
But the crux of Aldana’s efforts, he says, is an attempt to answer a simple question: “How do I help my mom, who still works the fields from Coachella up to Bakersfield, to understand that her life is worth more than $5 an hour?”
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