Mayoral Musings: Behind the Headline

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The undocumented pay billions into the Social Security Trust fund, monies they’ll never collect.

Recently, I came across the headline “N.J. gave 500 undocumented immigrants tuition money. Here’s where they are going to college.” It was an eye-catching headline placed over an AP photo showing what looks like protesting “DREAMer’s,” meaning teens brought here as young children after 2001—the ones now going to college.

The pricetag for tuition aid to these 513 undocumented students is $623,109 according to the piece by Kelly Heyboer for NJ Advance Media. Locally, Cumberland County College had eight of the 513 students at a cost of $8,629. The headline and photo might well have sparked anger in the average NJ taxpayer if the assumption was that the undocumented pay no taxes yet they get education aid courtesy of us taxpayers.

But before we go there, consider that unauthorized immigrants living in the state pay roughly $587 million in state and local taxes per year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. This nugget also comes courtesy of Kelly Heyboer who covered the topic in a December 2018 piece that listed the top 13 counties in New Jersey where undocumented immigrants pay the most taxes. Cumberland County was not in the top 13, but in a group of eight counties with roughly 29,000 undocumented persons paying an estimated $42.9 million in state and local taxes.

If we dig around a little further on the issue, we find an April 2013 report from the Social Security Administration that shows that undocumented individuals paid approximately $12 billion into the Social Security Trust fund in 2010. These monies won’t benefit them since federal law prohibits undocumented individuals from collecting social security.

Nationally, a 2016 study by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy estimated that undocumented immigrants paid $11.64 billion in state and local taxes in 2013, which they estimated to be the equivalent of about 8 percent of their total income.

I point this out to say that there are two sides to every story and certainly more behind the headlines. At first glance, one might easily conclude these students and their families were purely on the “takers” side of the ledger—contributing nothing, yet getting something valuable, perhaps at the expense of everyone else, the “givers.” But things are never quite as simple as stereotypes or even a headline might imply.

There are many aspects to this debate about undocumented persons and illegal immigration, including the fate of younger people who, through no fault of their own, were brought to this country as youngsters and who are, for all intents and purposes, Americans. I think we’re at our best as a country when we’re willing to go past stereotypes and headlines and consider issues in all their complexity and nuance.

Until I looked further, I didn’t know the amount in state and local taxes collected from undocumented persons in New Jersey, nor did I know that the sweat of their collective brows helps support the Social Security Trust Fund each year. I had no idea that the IRS estimates that about 6 million unauthorized immigrants file individual income tax returns each year or that between 50 percent and 75 percent of unauthorized immigrants pay federal, state, and local taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

I’m not implying that there was bad intent by either the journalist writing this story or the editor deciding on the headline. The goal is to capture a reader’s attention and to the extent that they captured mine, they succeeded. But there are layers to this story and those layers matter. If we’re willing to push past this specific issue, we might begin to talk about 30,000-foot issues like the solvency of social security over the next several decades and an aging population.

Consider that in the group of eight counties mentioned above (Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Salem, Sussex and Warren) with 29,000 undocumented persons who paid $42.9 million in state and local taxes, this amount would have been $47.4 million had they been legal residents. For the moment, $5 million might not be much, but if you educate undocumented young people who have lived their entire lives here and provide a legal pathway so that they can make maximum contributions, that impact would be no small thing.

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