The current effort by Rep. Steve Smith to recoup the costs of health care and educational services for undocumented immigrants brings to mind the old saying “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.”
Maricopa City councilwoman Julia Gusse recently drew attention to his proposed legislation, which requires hospitals (HB2293) and schools (HB2289) to report undocumented patients and students so that the state can send a bill for these services to the federal government.
Councilwoman Gusse rightly asks what the cost of assigning immigration responsibilities to hospitals and public schools would be to Arizona taxpayers.
It is a question that deserves answering.
Hospitals and public schools have clear responsibilities to society, in that they are expected to provide their services to those in need regardless of their circumstances, especially a lack of money. This social contract has increasingly come under pressure, making it more and more difficult to fulfill our most critical obligations as a modern society. This legislation will make it harder for our teachers, nurses, and doctors to do their jobs, and, as Councilwoman Gusse points out, cost the taxpayer more money in doing so.
These bills, or those very similar to them, have been unsuccessful in past legislative sessions, for good reason. The likelihood that the federal government will accept Arizona’s estimate of costs of services to undocumented patients and students is very low, as is the chance of a federal repayment. In reality, this idea most likely represents an increase in government oversight, with an inherent net cost to the taxpayer. The social cost is difficult to ascertain, but is perhaps even more significant than the monetary cost.To try to put this in a broader perspective, consider that undocumented immigrants did not cause the housing bubble, which resulted in the Great Recession, which, in turn, took orders of magnitude more money out of middle- and lower-income taxpayers’ pockets than any amount of savings this legislation might represent.
In fact, most economists agree that estimating the net cost of undocumented immigrants is fraught with inaccuracies, and greatly subject to political bias. For example, these immigrants use social services, at a cost to the state, but they also pay sales taxes and social security (which they cannot use), which is withdrawn from their paychecks. Whether these tax revenues offset the total cost of social services provided is unclear, but economists believe that the net difference (the gnat, in this case) is most likely modest, particularly when we compare it to the continuing cost of the Great Recession (the camel).
As many Arizonans struggle to pay their bills and keep their jobs, the proposed legislation doesn’t make us a stronger or better society.
It is part of Councilwoman Gusse’s job to ask for an accounting of these bills, and she should be applauded for doing so. It is part of Rep. Smith’s job to introduce pragmatic legislation that lessens the economic burden on middle- and lower-income families, along with protection from ineffective government regulation. He should be encouraged to focus on that.