The federal government is very slick in sticking the cost on others for programs it wants implemented but wants to avoid paying for. It sticks the cost of $2 trillion of regulations annually on business. It imposes hundreds of billions more on state and local governments to manage the illegal immigration coming through its open southern border.
How does the federal government cause problems like illegal immigration and avoid paying for it? What is the cost of illegal immigration, and how does it compare to the costs of permanent departments of government?
The U.S. Supreme Court holds that the federal government can treat citizens and noncitizens differently under the Equal Protection Clause. As to states, however:
“Under a long line of Supreme Court cases, states and localities that distinguish between citizens and noncitizens are subject to “strict scrutiny,” meaning that to comply with the Constitution, the [state] law or policy that treats noncitizens differently must ‘further  a compelling state interest by the least restrictive means practically available.”’
If a state denies noncitizens the public benefits offered to citizens, it must establish that such denial is the least restrictive alternative to achieve a compelling state interest. That standard is almost impossible for states to meet. Therefore, if state and local governments provide K-12 education and hospital treatment for emergency medical conditions for uninsured citizens, they must also provide those benefits to illegal immigrants or risk costly civil rights lawsuits.
Moreover, since the federal government does not require localities to verify immigration status before providing benefits and, recognizing in many instances, federal immigration officials will not give the local governments the immigrant’s status, there is a tremendous incentive to provide the public benefits to the illegals to avoid litigation.
What are the benefits to illegals costing taxpayers?
A November 2023 interim report by the majority members of the House Committee on Homeland Security cited two studies on the cost of benefits to illegal immigrants. A May 2023 report by The Center for Immigration Studies calculated the annual costs to state and local governments to care for and house the illegal immigrants was $451 billion. Another 2023 report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform calculated the annual net burden on the U.S. economy from illegal immigrants to be more than $150 billion.
How does the cost of illegal immigrants compare to the cost of running federal cabinet level departments?
While the cost estimates of illegal immigration vary wildly, even the lowest cost estimate of $150 billion is more than the U.S. spends to run most federal agencies. Since state and local governments pick up most of the cost of illegal immigration, and those costs are widely dispersed throughout the U.S., it is necessary to compare the overall costs of illegal immigrants against the cost of federal cabinet-level departments that serve the nation. Using this comparison, one can evaluate the cost of illegal immigration to other nationwide government operations.
$451 billion of care for illegal immigrants exceeds the combined amounts appropriated for the discretionary budget of 10 federal cabinet-level departments.
The United States spent $428 billion in FY 2022 discretionary appropriations to fund the Departments of Commerce, Education, HUD, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. The cost of caring for illegal immigrants was $451 billion. Conversely, the U.S. spent $23 billion less to fund ten major departments of government that run most of the domestic affairs of the nation than state and local governments spend to care for illegal immigrants.
The U.S. spent less of its discretionary FY 2022 budget to fund its two largest cabinet departments, the Department of Health and Human Services ($131.8 billion) and the Department of Homeland Security ($52.2), than state and local governments spent to care for illegal immigrants, i.e., $185 billion vs $451 billion.
The lower $150 billion estimate to care for illegal immigrants is almost two times the amount spent on all major agencies (not cabinet-level departments) combined.
FY 2022’s discretionary budget appropriated approximately $82 billion to fund all its major federal agencies: The Corps of Engineers, EPA, GSA, NASA, National Science Foundation, Small Business Administration, and numerous other smaller agencies.
The $150 billion spent to care for illegal immigrants is greater than the discretionary budgets of every cabinet-level department and major agency in the U.S. except the Department of Defense.
While calculating the cost of care for illegal immigrants in any one state or city is comparatively small next to the $6 trillion budget of the U.S. government, the total amount spent on illegal immigrant care is massively out-of-proportion when compared to what is spent to run the all the departments and agencies of the federal government.
The amount spent by state and local governments to care for illegal immigrants is as much as the federal government spends to run eighty percent of its domestic programs. The federal government may not care that it is driving state and local governments bankrupt, but it should understand it has embarked on a path to incite civil unrest or civil war. The federal government’s open border does not make sense. But then again, perhaps that is what the federal government seeks, so it has a reason to take repressive actions against citizens it finds objectionable.
William L. Kovacs has served as senior vice president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, chief counsel to a congressional committee, chairman of a state environmental board, and a partner in law D.C. law firms. His book Reform the Kakistocracy is the winner of the 2021 Independent Press Award for Political/Social Change. He can be contacted at [email protected]