The moral equation of budget cuts

By Michelle Chen Jul 11, 2009

Here we go again. California may soon seek to balance the budget on the backs of immigrant families. The LA Times reports that Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed imposing a five-year limit on state welfare support for citizen children of undocumented immigrants, which “would affect approximately 100,000 U.S.-born children in about 48,000 California households headed by illegal immigrants, who receive a monthly average of $472.” In total, the state estimates that denying benefits to undocumented immigrant households for these children “could save about $640 million annually if it survives legal challenges.” Now that’s bang for your buck, eh? Facing a fiscal gap of over $26 billion, state lawmakers ought to carefully weigh the ramifications of this move. Is the amount "saved," compared to the monstrous deficit, really worth taking away a family’s monthly welfare stipend—money that, in the midst of a recession, barely buffers a household against starvation and homelessness? State officials claim that the state’s 2.7 million undocumented residents, about 7 percent of the population, “cost” $4 to $6 billion annually in public expenses, “primarily for prisons and jails, schools and emergency rooms.” When did earning a financial return become the main purpose of providing public resources to the needy? Do officials subject other poor and uninsured people across the state to this kind of cost-benefit analysis? The budget equation is tipped on the essentially arbitrary designation of “illegal.” For legal people, the discussion centers not on individual liability but public responsibility. Federal law provides immigrants some constitutional protections, as seen in controversies over initiatives like Proposition 187. States are restricted from discriminating on the basis of citizenship in providing emergency medical care and public schooling. But as many tight-fisted state governments have shown, the rest is fair game. Undocumented immigrants—who don’t vote, labor tirelessly in a shadow economy, and often live in terror of confronting any kind of authority, be it their boss or their local welfare office—are an easy target for nibbling away at deficits. And there’s a hidden benefit tucked into the alleged costs: they’re pretty handy as a source of revenue from payroll and other taxes, since research shows that they typically contribute far more to government coffers than they take out in benefits. (Those often overlooked contributions would be enhanced by comprehensive reform.) But Schwarzenegger’s proposals go one step further by designating a separate class of citizens—including some of California’s poorest and most vulnerable kids—to receive fewer benefits just because of how their parents crossed the border. In Washington, health care reform could further erode the brittle social service infrastructure for immigrants, documented and undocumented. Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change warns that the overhaul could ultimately codify regressive barriers facing the documented and undocumented:

All of the plans getting serious consideration in Congress would exclude undocumented immigrants. Many proposals would even bar access to community health centers and emergency rooms — a historic shift from America’s humanitarian tradition that in an emergency no one should be turned away. Some proposals would exclude legal resident immigrants who have been in the United States for less than five years. Unless the debate takes a different turn, millions of immigrants will be left out of the system.

But at the helm of the debate are those with the resources and clout to make others pay for their gains. The budget math is as straightforward as the political calculus: there’s no room for moral costs on the ledger.