“You’ll recall several years ago Arizona put in place really tough laws on illegal immigration. And they were criticized loudly for putting those laws in place. And it was interesting, this Wall Street Journal article, because it talked about what happened in the wake of that law, which is, a great many of the illegal immigrants left. … Arizona is spending hundreds of millions of dollars less on prisons, on education, on hospitals, for those here illegally. That means that’s hundreds of millions of dollars available to take care of U.S. citizens.”
–Ted Cruz, GOP town hall meeting on CNN, March 30
In 2010, Arizona passed a tough immigration law that sparked outrage from supporters of immigration, and led to copycat bills in other states that believed Arizona was taking the right step in curbing illegal immigration.
Cruz likes to cite a Wall Street Journal article about the economic impact of Arizona’s law, Senate Bill 1070, to say that the state now spends “hundreds of millions of dollars less on prisons, on education, on hospitals, for those here illegally.” Is that accurate?
The Arizona law required police to determine the immigration status of someone who is detained or arrested, if police had a “reasonable suspicion” that the person was in the country illegally. This was the most controversial provision that opponents of the law said would open up room for rampant racial profiling. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this provision but struck down most others that were challenged – including a requirement that noncitizens carry their immigrant registration documents.
Cruz exaggerates a Feb. 9, 2016, Wall Street Journal article on the debate over the economic impact of the law. The state’s economy took a hit when large numbers of undocumented immigrants left the state following the law, it says, but it also reduced competition for low-skilled jobs.
The state saved money on education and health care after the law passed, but “whether those gains are worth the economic pain is the crux of the debate,” the Journal wrote.
“Pinning down exactly how much [illegal immigration] costs the state, and how much is collected from illegal immigrants through taxation, is surprisingly hard to do,” it says. “The state doesn’t count it. Estimates vary widely, depending in part on debatable issues such as whether to include the cost of educating U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.”
Undocumented immigrants started leaving the state as the recession began. From 2009 to 2012, Arizona was one of 14 states that saw a marked decrease in undocumented immigrants – to 300,000 in 2012 from 350,000 in 2009, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports limiting immigration into the United States, found a mix of factors played into the exodus of undocumented immigrants.
One major factor was the Great Recession, loss of jobs and rising unemployment rates. Plus, the Arizona legislature began taking steps to curb undocumented flows in 2007, at the height of illegal immigration into Arizona and the country in general. In 2008, the state’s first anti-illegal immigration law took effect, cracking down on businesses knowingly hiring unauthorized workers. Arizona became increasingly hostile toward illegal immigration.
Bottom line: It’s impossible to break out the impact of the 2010 law from that of the recession (which coincided with the debate leading up to the law) or other factors.
“We saw a great reduction in the number of undocumented immigrants in the state. Whether they moved because of Senate Bill 1070 or because the jobs just dried up and the construction industry crashed is a matter of debate,” said Dan Hunting, senior policy analyst at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy who studies the effects of the 2010 law.
[Update: Bob Davis, author of the Journal article, said “it is not impossible, but it is devilishly difficult" to separate the impact of the recession and the law. Economists found Arizona’s loss of population was far greater than other states after the 2008 law, Davis said. The Journal article cites similar calculations by Moody’s Analytics of how mass departures of undocumented immigrants affected Arizona’s total employment spanning 2008 to 2015. Moody’s found Arizona’s total employment was 2.5 percent lower, on average, due to the departures.]
Arizona schools are required to educate all students regardless of their citizenship, and are legally prohibited from asking their citizenship status. So the state does not track spending on undocumented students.
The Journal found that the number of students enrolled in intensive English courses in public schools decreased from 150,000 in 2008 to 70,000 in 2012. “Schooling 80,000 fewer students would save the state roughly $350 million a year, by one measure,” it said.
Enrollment in such courses could be one indirect measure of the decrease in illegal immigration, budget and policy experts said. But many factors could have affected it, such as changes in testing standards used by the state. Plus, the enrollment number doesn’t tell you anything about the actual citizenship status of students (i.e., they could be native-born children of undocumented immigrants, raised in a non-English-speaking home).
The Journal reports that between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2014, state spending on prisons for “criminal aliens” (non-citizens convicted of felonies) fell 11 percent, to $180 million, from $202 million.
We found a similar trend. The average criminal alien daily population was 4,764 in 2015, down from 6,174 in 2010. The annual cost fell by $28 million between 2010 ($135 million) and 2015 ($107 million).
But the criminal alien population includes both documented and undocumented immigrants, so this does not specifically look at those who entered illegally. And no causation can be drawn from these figures.
The Journal cites the Arizona Medicaid agency’s statistics on emergency room care for non-citizens, which fell 37 percent, to $106 million, in 2012 from $167 million in 2009. Federal law requires hospitals to treat everyone in emergency rooms, regardless of whether they can pay their bills.
In September 2005, Arizona began using federal funding to treat undocumented patients. Arizona exhausted this Medicaid funding in 2014.
The cost of care hospitals provided for emergency treatment of undocumented immigrants began declining significantly in 2008, according to data compiled by the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association. In 2008, emergency-care treatment for undocumented patients totaled $51.5 million, and in 2012, it dropped to $26.9 million.
“Laws and legislation can affect access to health care, but they aren’t the only factor,” said Jim Haynes, the association’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. “The timing of the recession and SB1070 going into effect are very close, and therefore it’s difficult to clearly identify a direct correlation between SB1070 and the cost of care for illegal immigrants.”
The Pinocchio Test
Cruz says Arizona is “spending hundreds of millions less on prisons, on education, on hospitals, for those here illegally,” as a result of the 2010 immigration law. He cites a Wall Street Journal article as the source of his claim. But the article itself is much more nuanced and less definitive than how he describes it. It shows that the economic impact of the law is still under debate, and that it is unclear whether the savings outweigh the loss in tax revenue after undocumented immigrants left the state.
Cruz generalizes spending trends on hospitals, prisons and education in ways the article doesn’t. State Medicaid spending on undocumented patients did decrease. Arizona is spending less on incarcerating noncitizens, but that does not necessarily mean they are all undocumented. As for education, the Journal article uses one measure that could reflect the decrease in illegal immigration. But there is no direct measure of education spending on noncitizens. Plus, none of the figures in the Journal article support his claim that the state is saving “hundreds of millions,” except for the one education measure that doesn’t directly quantify spending on undocumented students.
The big problem with Cruz’s claim is that he uses the nuanced reporting in the Journal article to draw a causation that can’t be proved. There was an exodus of undocumented immigrants around the time the 2010 law passed. But those populations were leaving state as the recession began, and continued to leave the state. There’s no proof that them doing so was a result of the law, the recession, or a combination of the two.
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