On immigration rhetoric, consider the facts
Undocumented Oklahomans contribute roughly $85 million annually in state, local taxes
Undocumented Oklahomans are woven into the fabric of our communities in countless ways. There were about 95,000 undocumented immigrants living in Oklahoma in 2014, accounting for about one in every 30 workers in the state. Many have lived here for decades as they raise U.S.-born children. They tend to work in difficult, labor-intensive occupations in agriculture, construction, and textile industries—jobs that few legal residents will take.
By any fair estimate, undocumented Oklahomans contribute a great deal to our economy and state tax base, and they would contribute even more if allowed a path to legal status. Undocumented Oklahomans pay sales tax directly when they purchase goods and services, and they pay property taxes through owning a home or paying rent. Although they are not technically eligible to work, most do, and about 50 to 75 percent of undocumented immigrants pay personal income taxes through IRS-issued individual tax identification numbers or false Social Security numbers. Because they’re not eligible to earn the Earned Income Tax Credit, their effective tax rates are higher than citizens with the same income. Currently, undocumented Oklahomans contribute about $85 million in state and local taxes per year.
Oklahoma is much better off when we unite to reject appeals that minimize the contributions of our neighbors. But as the race to replace Governor Mary Fallin heats up, dubious claims about undocumented immigration have appeared in candidates’ platforms. One ad for a gubernatorial candidate features the shocking claim that $623 million is spent on undocumented immigrants in Oklahoma each year. The number comes from a group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national organization that seeks to severely limit any kind of immigration to the United States.
The report behind this number has been thoroughly debunked. The authors deliberately tip the scales in various ways: by using unreasonably high estimates of the undocumented population; including benefits to U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants while excluding the taxes those children pay when they start working; assuming inflated health care costs for undocumented immigrants; and undercounting immigrants’ sales tax contributions.
It’s not surprising that political candidates use shocking numbers to scare voters into supporting their campaign, but the facts almost always tell a much more complicated story. In this case, the numbers are artificially inflated in so many ways that it’s safe to reject them—and the fear and anger they are meant to stoke.
More comprehensive overviews find mixed evidence when attempting to calculate the costs and benefits of undocumented immigrants to state and local government budgets. Some studies have found that expenditures on services for undocumented immigrants slightly outpace their contributions through taxes, but there’s a clear fix for that: granting undocumented residents legal status to work and pay taxes. Undocumented immigrants’ state and local tax contributions would rise by nearly $20 million in Oklahoma if the federal government took that step.
Undocumented immigrants move to Oklahoma for the same reason that citizens do: to seek out opportunities to work and to raise a family. Their contributions to our economy are vast, and they would be even greater if given the chance to work with legal status. At a time of so much political division, voters of all parties and political leanings should unite to demand constructive solutions to the problems our state faces, rather than fall for old tricks meant to divide us.
Ryan Gentzler is a policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute.