Illegal Immigrants – and Other Non-Citizens – Should Not Receive Government Healthcare

Last week during one of their debates, all Democratic primary candidates supported government health care for illegal immigrants. This type of position is extremely damaging politically and, if enacted, would unnecessarily burden taxpayers for likely zero improvements in health outcomes. I expect the eventual Democratic candidate for president to not support this type of proposal, but it should be nipped in the bud.

After the debate, Democratic candidate Julian Castro argued that extending government health care to illegal immigrants would not be a big deal. “[W]e already pay for the health care of undocumented immigrants,” Castro said. “It’s called the emergency room. People show up in the emergency room and they get care, as they should.” It is true that some illegal immigrants use emergency room services thanks to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act and to Emergency Medicaid, but Castro leaned heavily into a stereotype often used by nativists. According to a paper published in the journal Health Affairs, illegal immigrants between the ages of 18-64 consumed about $1.1 billion in government healthcare benefits in 2006 – about 0.13 percent of the approximately $867 billion in government healthcare expenditures that year. That’s a fraction of the cost that would be imposed on American taxpayers by extending nationalized health care to all illegal immigrants. So, with all due respect to Mr. Castro, we do not already pay for their health care just because some illegal immigrants visit emergency rooms at government expense.      

One of the reasons why immigrants individually consume so much less welfare than native-born Americans is that many of them do not have legal access to these benefits. Cato scholars have proposed making these welfare restrictions even stricter to deny benefits to all non-citizens and to not count work credit toward entitlements until immigrants are naturalized citizens – what the late Bill Niskanen called “build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.”

Many American voters are concerned about immigrant consumption of welfare benefits. In a 2017 poll, 28 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “Immigration detracts from our character and weakens the United States because it puts too many burdens on government services, causes language barriers, and creates housing problems [emphasis added].” That level of concern exists under current laws that restrict non-citizen access to benefits and even chill eligible non-citizen participation. I’d expect that poll result to worsen if new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, were put on government health care program.

Extending government health care to illegal immigrants and other new immigrants would probably not improve healthcare outcomes for immigrants. According to the wonderful The Integration of Immigrants into American Society report published by the National Academies of Sciences, immigrants already have better infant, child, and adult health outcomes than native-born Americans, while also having less access to welfare benefits like Medicaid. Immigrants also live about 3.4 years longer than native-born Americans do. Illegal Mexican immigrants had an average of 1.6 fewer physician visits per year compared to native-born Americans of Mexican descent. Other illegal Hispanic immigrants made an average of 2.1 fewer visits to doctors per year than their native-born counterparts.  Illegal immigrants are about half as likely to have chronic healthcare problems than native-born Americans. Overall per capita health care spending was 55 percent lower for immigrants than for native-born Americans. 

Immigrants also lower the cost of other portions of the health care system. In 2014, immigrants paid 12.6 percent of all premiums to private health insurers but accounted for only 9.1 percent of all insurer expenditures. Immigrants’ annual premiums exceeded their health care expenditures by $1,123 per enrollee, for a total of $24.7 billion. That offset the deficit of $163 per native-born enrollee. The immigrant net-subsidy persisted even after ten years of residence in the United States. 

From 2002-2009, immigrants subsidized Medicare as they made 14.7 percent of contributions but only consumed 7.9 percent of expenditures, for a $13.8 billion annual surplus. By comparison, native-born Americans consumed $30.9 billion more in Medicare than they contributed annually. Among Medicare enrollees, average expenditures were $1,465 lower for immigrants than for native-born Americans, for a difference of $3,923 to $5,388. From 2000 to 2011, illegal immigrants contributed $2.2 to $3.8 billion more than they withdrew annually in Medicare benefits (a total surplus of $35.1 billion). If illegal immigrants had neither contributed to nor withdrawn from the Medicare Trust Fund during those 11 years, it would become insolvent 1 year earlier than currently predicted – in 2029 instead of 2030.

American taxpayers should not have to pay for the health care costs of other Americans, let alone for non-citizens. For those reading this post who are very concerned about the well-being of immigrants, think of what would happen to public support for legal immigration if welfare benefits were extended in this way.  Immigrants come here primarily for economic opportunity, not for government health insurance. They tend to be healthier than native-born Americans and lower the price of health care for others as a result – but the point would likely change if the laws were different. Let’s not build public support for reducing legal immigration, or increase reluctance to expand it, by extending government health care, at enormous public cost, to people who don’t need it.