Schools, welfare and taxes. Those are the big concerns some people have about immigrants' impact on public spending. UMass Boston economist Alan Clayton-Matthews actually tried to quantify these impacts using the most recent census data from 2007.
"Immigrants tend to have larger households with more children and therefore make a higher use of the public education system than do natives," Clayton-Matthews said.
His study shows that immigrant-headed families sent about 179,000 students to public schools across the state. Those children make up about 19 percent of school children, even though they are 15.5 percent of the state's population. That costs the state about $300 million to $440 million a year.
But that's not the whole picture. "Fewer immigrants are incarcerated in proportion to their population," Clayton-Matthews said. And, "since immigrants tend to be younger, there are fewer elderly immigrants who are institutionalized in nursing or long-term care facilities."
The UMass Boston economist did this study for the Immigrant Learning Center, a non-profit organization in Malden that launched an "education initiative" in 2003 to, as the report says, "raise the visibility of immigrants as assets to America."
As far as welfare programs — from food stamps to social security — the study says immigrants use less of these services than American-born Massachusetts residents.
And as far as taxes go, "It's pretty much a wash," Clayton-Matthews said. "If you think about society as a whole, it should be a wash. And what we're seeing is that if you look separately for each group, it's essentially a wash as well. So perhaps that finding is surprising — or perhaps not."
Not so surprising for Jefrrey Passell, chief demographer for the Pew Hispanic Center. He says most nationwide studies have shown similar outcomes, but have distinguished between documented and undocumented immigrants. This Massachusetts survey doesn't, which he says is surprising, since that is what all of the fuss is about.
If they had, they probably would have found this, Passel says: "They tend to have lower incomes and pay less in taxes. By and large, the undocumented immigrants are not eligible for welfare services and I don't know of any data sets that say they are using them to any great degree."
The Massachusetts study comes just in time for what could be a big debate here about immigrants. A governor-appointed advisory council will release more than a dozen policy recommendations next week on how to integrate immigrants into the economic and civic life of the state.
Eva Millona, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, is part of that task force. She says the study will help bring objective information into the discussion. "It really shows what MIRA has always contended, that immigrants play a major role in the economic and cultural life for our commonwealth," she said. "They pay into the system and take out of the system at about the same rate as the native-born population."
On the other side of the debate is the Center for Immigration Studies. It is a non-profit think tank based in DC, that many civil rights groups consider extremist. Jessica Vaughn is a policy analyst for the group and is based in Massachusetts. She says the UMass study is consistent with other research, but fails to look at other economic impacts of immigration policy.
"It's great for the immigrants who come here who can improve their lives; it is great for people who employ large numbers of immigrants, because anytime you get an increase in the supply of workers it drives down wages," Vaughn said. "But it's not so good for Americans and recent immigrants who are trying to compete in the same sectors of the economy, because their wages stagnate or even go down in some cases."
That argument is part of another controversy around immigrants, and it is one that labor economist Alan Clayton-Matthews said he's interested to explore down the road. But for now, he is hoping this study about who pays what and how much may help inform the upcoming immigration debate.
This program aired on June 24, 2009.