“Frankly, illegal immigrants get treated better than many of our vets — it’s a disgrace what’s happening in this country.”
— Trump, interview on NBC, July 20, 2015
Trump has been using this talking point for more than a year, and it’s never been quite clear exactly what he meant. On its face, this claim doesn’t make much sense: People in the country illegally, by definition, are not given the basic rights that people here legally — veterans or civilians — have.
Trump’s campaign explained it this way: “In multiple respects, our politicians and our government prioritize illegal aliens above military service members. In fact, many politicians have given more attention to and pledged more support for illegal aliens than our own veterans.”
For example, Hillary Clinton has prioritized a “comprehensive immigration reform” plan her first 100 days in office but has not promised a veterans benefits bill, the campaign said. Clinton has “downplayed” the wait-time scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, yet “is pledging to fight for illegal immigrants and spend taxpayer dollars granting them benefits.”
(We fact-checked her claims about the VA scandal here. Clinton has proposed giving illegal immigrants health care under the Affordable Care Act. Her plan would require undocumented immigrants to be deemed lawfully present before qualifying for Medicare or Social Security, and only after paying income taxes and after they reach requirement age. We explained this in depth here.)
The campaign cited three instances of veterans being treated “worse” than illegal immigrants: consequences for criminal convictions, cost to the government, and wait times. We explored each point.
1. “Sanctuary” laws restricting state and local governments from alerting federal authorities about people who may be in the country illegally. The campaign pointed to cases where people were convicted of crimes such as DUI in sanctuary jurisdictions and released without immigration consequences. “But members of the military who receive DUIs are subject to punishment from their commanding officers and court martial,” the campaign said.
It’s unclear why the campaign is comparing undocumented immigrants to current service members, or how this comparison makes sense. There is a separate military court system. And sanctuary restrictions exist because immigration enforcement is a responsibility of the federal government, not local or state jurisdictions. (For more on sanctuary laws, see here.)
What this argument overlooks is that there are federal, state, local and private efforts to help veterans navigate the criminal justice system — especially for those with mental illnesses relating to their service. There are many resources to help veterans receive the benefits to which they’re entitled, even if they are incarcerated.
There are veterans treatment courts throughout the country. Judges and legal teams help help veterans avoid recidivism or lengthy incarceratio, by offering services for mental health, substance abuse, homelessnes and employment.
2. The cost of illegal immigration to federal, state and local governments. The campaign cited costs for housing illegal immigrants in prisons in fiscal year 2014 at $1.87 billion. This comes from a study by Jay Bates, a researcher who analyzed state spending on incarceration and the cost of a federal reimbursement program for states and local governments incarcerating inmates of illegal or unknown immigration status. The campaign also cited the fiscal 2016 Health and Human Services budgeted amount of $950 million “just to process and care for illegal alien minors.”
That’s $2.8 billion in two separate fiscal years. Let’s put it into perspective.
VA is the largest non-military Cabinet agency, with nearly 350,000 employees. In fiscal 2016, discretionary funding for the department totaled $69.7 billion — and had grown 73 percent since 2009. Funding plans adopted in the House and Senate would increase discretionary spending even more, upwards of $74.9 billion — which falls below the White House request of $75.1 billion.
It costs states and local governments to educate children of undocumented immigrants, but it’s unclear exactly how much per year.
In fiscal 2014, the federal government paid $1.2 billion and states paid $1 billion in Medicaid emergency-care costs for undocumented people, said Leighton Ku, director of George Washington University’s Center for Health Policy Research. That’s about one-half of 1 percent of Medicaid expenditures, he added.
“All in all, data consistently show that immigrants, particularly the undocumented, use very little medical care compared to U.S. citizens, and only a small share is paid by government sources, whether federal, state or local,” Ku said.
3. Granting unauthorized people entry for humanitarian reasons, or granting refugee status. The campaign pointed to a humanitarian visa granted to foreigners for certain emergencies, and the Obama administration’s plan to process 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of fiscal 2016. Yet veterans continue to experience delays in accessing medical care, the campaign said.
But the humanitarian visa is granted sparingly for foreigners, so they can reenter the country once without changing their visa status. It’s discouraged for undocumented immigrants already in the country, and experts told us it wouldn’t be granted if unauthorized people requested it.
Again, it’s unclear how these two compare. One is about granting emergency reentry into the United States for a narrow group of foreigners, and the other is about veterans accessing medical care. There are legitimate delays for veterans waiting for medical care, as uncovered in the 2014 wait-time manipulation scandal at the Phoenix VA that turned out to be a systemic problem. More than two years later, VA continues to report delays in veterans accessing medical care. But these are not apples-to-apples comparisons of wait times.
Unauthorized immigrants, who are not granted any deferred-action status that deems them lawfully present in the country, are not eligible to receive Social Security benefits or any other federal means-tested benefits.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to limit immigration, says undocumented immigrants cost U.S. and state governments $113 billion a year in welfare programs. But other reports have shown that there are benefits as well, especially because illegal immigrants pay payroll taxes.
Even though the majority of unauthorized people can’t collect the benefits, they paid about $12 billion into the cash flow of the Social Security program in 2010, according to the Social Security actuary. (Some undocumented immigrants could theoretically collect benefits — illegally — if they’ve overstayed their visas or falsely obtained a Social Security number.) That means the U.S. government gets far more than it pays out when it comes to unauthorized immigrants.
Non-citizens can obtain citizenship after joining the military. And non-citizen veterans who commit crimes can be deported.
When asked last week whether undocumented people who want to serve in the military should be allowed stay in the country legally (a provision of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), Trump said: “I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a very special situation, and I could see myself working that out, absolutely.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump often says veterans “in many cases” are being treated “worse” than illegal immigrants. To an extent, whether one group of people is treated “worse” than another is a matter of opinion. But it’s clear that the “many cases” that his campaign cites are apples-to-oranges comparisons that don’t make much sense. And more broadly, people who are in the United States illegally aren’t granted the same rights as people here legally — both civilians and veterans. This is an absurd comparison, and Trump needs to drop it.
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