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Estimating Illegal Immigration's Cost to Public Education

The Hill

Several blue-city mayors who seemed to have no problem with the flood of migrants crossing our southern border have recently discovered they come with a cost — and those mayors aren’t happy about it. But these initial costs are chump change compared to the cost the new arrivals will impose on taxpayers as they settle in and wait to go through the legal process. One of the biggest costs? Public education.

Here’s the backstory. In 1975 the Texas Legislature passed a law denying state funds for the public education of children who had not been legally admitted into the United States. A class action suit was filed on behalf of undocumented school-age children. The courts ruled against the state and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Plyler v. Doe (1982) the Court decided that the Texas law violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The result is that all school-age children residing in the U.S. have the right to attend public schools at taxpayer expense.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the Court’s reasoning, if undocumented school-age children are residing in the U.S., it’s a good idea to educate them. But at what cost? Given all the unknowns, the best we can probably do is a rough estimate.

Let’ start with the cost of public education. According to the World Population Review, “Federal, state, and local governments spend about $720.9 billion annually or $14,840 per pupil” on K-12 public education. The federal government provides 7.7 percent of that funding, state governments 46.7 percent and local governments 45.6 percent. (The Education Data Initiative has a slightly larger number.)

So, while the federal government is charged with making and enforcing immigration policy, the cost of public education is largely left to state and local governments.

Of course, states vary widely in how much they spend. At $24,040, New York has the highest per-pupil spending, while Utah spends the least, $7,628. But since we don’t know where all those newly arrived undocumented immigrants have gone (or been transported to), we will use the average cost: $14,840 per pupil.

The next problem is estimating how many of the recent arrivals are school-age children.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which tracks immigration as well as other issues, wrote in a paper published last June, “If we look at the proportion of all apprehensions who were children — both those arriving unaccompanied or part of a family group — then this has increased from 8.2 percent in FY 2008 to 37.4 percent in FY 2019 — a five-fold increase.” So, well over a third of all apprehensions in 2019 were of children.

So, how many newly arrived children might be eligible to attend public school? Again, this can only be a rough estimate. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) says there were nearly 2.4 million apprehensions in Fiscal Year 2022, which ended in September.

The Pew Research Center says that the number of illegal immigrants expelled under Title 42 – which allows the government to expel immigrants during a public health emergency – declined during 2022, from about 50 percent to about a third. That would leave some 1.5 million.

There was another estimated 600,000 who avoided border patrol in 2022, for an estimated total of 2.1 million new undocumented immigrants living in the country.

If we use TRAC’s estimate of 37 percent being children, that’s about 777,000. Of course, not all of them are school age. If we subtract, say, a third of them for being too young to enter public school, that leaves us with about 513,000 school-age children.

Multiply that times the average cost of a public education, $14,840, and that equals about $7.6 billion in new public education costs for just one year’s worth of undocumented children. And while the migrants have spread out across the country, a relatively small number of states and cities must cover most of those costs. Some blue-city mayors are beginning to recognize those costs.

But won’t the parents be paying taxes to offset some of those costs? Maybe, eventually. But the recently arrived undocumented immigrants are generally prohibited from working for an employer until they have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which can take months to obtain.

Again, this isn’t a case for not educating the children of illegal immigrants. It is an effort to quantify some of the costs they impose.

Immigrants can also bring, and have long brought, much-need workers, innovation and vitality to an economy. But while those benefits are limited when the immigration system is as dysfunctional and politically polarizing as ours, the costs are not.