The new Department of Homeland Security directives for illegal immigration enforcement are the latest development in the Trump administration’s focus on border security and addressing the status of more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. These directives come alongside a Senate bill proposing a method for granting a type of documentation to illegal immigrants, and one mechanism it uses to do so is a one-time fee. But is a one-time fee sufficient to address the recurring costs of those living in the United States illegally?

The purpose of user fees is to ensure that government services are paid for by those who use them. They are most appropriate when the services are visibly defined and can be directly connected to specific users and or consumers. They are also effective when nonusers are precluded from using or benefiting from the service. User fees are popular in the environmental arena and transportation sectors. For example, visitors and boaters using many of our national parks pay user fees to finance the operations of the park, rather than putting that burden on the entire taxpaying population. User fees help to eliminate the “free-rider” problem that exists when some people are paying for the services and using them while others are not.

An earned citizenship fee covering more than just processing for the applicant might be thought of in the same way because it could be an alternative, more palatable way for illegal immigrants to gain access to a pathway to citizenship. This user fee could be a part of the entire package for those wanting to gain citizenship.

Senate bill (S. 774), discussed by the American Immigration Council, provides for the eligibility of agricultural workers. For example, undocumented agricultural workers would be eligible for an immigrant status called a “blue card.” After meeting certain qualifications, they must pay a penalty and pass background checks. Blue card holders may apply for Lawful Permanent Resident status five years after enactment of the bill if they have continued to work in agriculture, paid their taxes, and pay a fine. Five years after that, they may apply for citizenship, with all the rights that brings.

The fees as currently suggested in S.744 appear to cover only processing fees with limited discussion on fines. But Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation seems to suggest that in exchange for a fine of $1,000, the illegal immigrant would be given access to the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicare and a number of other means-tested welfare programs, as well as a right to vote. He also stated, “The net fiscal cost of amnesty recipients would clearly be hundreds of times greater than any fine they would pay.” Rector concludes that amnesty or earned citizenship would greatly reward individuals for breaking U.S. laws, encouraging increased new waves of illegal immigration.

Rector understands that a fine of $1,000 is insufficient to cover the costs incurred by various states and the U.S. government, and I would have to agree. The amount seems low for someone receiving a lifetime set of benefits. In a study by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the authors note that in 2010, the per capita tax burden for Texas was about $900 a year. So a one-time fine (let alone a user fee) of $1,000 per individual would not be enough to recover costs if federal costs were any more than $100 for just one year. A 2006 Lone Star Foundation study, reported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, looked at the costs of education, healthcare, and law enforcement and concluded that every illegal immigrant in Texas represented a net loss of $2,333 per year for the state. So, it appears that fining an illegal immigrant (or charging a user fee) a one-time cost of $1,000 is not sufficient to cover state or federal government costs associated with illegal immigrants.

In summation, more work is needed to calculate the actual annual cost associated with unfunded benefits provided to illegal immigrants. It seems obvious that a fine, much higher than $1,000, should be considered for a lifetime set of benefits, and this should probably be defined as a user fee. What is more, new independent studies should be completed identifying (including all important and appropriate variables) the net contributions and future costs imposed by illegal immigrants. From this, an appropriate annual or periodic user fee can be calculated that is based on the unfunded benefits that are being provided. In other words, the program should cover the future costs just like those costs described in the beginning of this paper. While the added fee does not eliminate all political shortcomings, it does help mitigate some issues

Gary S. Becker is the Chief Economist for Catalyst Partners, LLC. In this role, Becker offers economic analyses to clients on matters relating to homeland security, including the cost impact of proposed and final rulemakings. He offers advice on how to save money while achieving desired security benefits. Read More