The Obama administration has shown a complete lack of both competence and interest when it comes to securing our borders and enforcing our immigration laws. And that’s costing us a lot of money. Billions, in fact.
There are the billions of taxpayer dollars used to subsidize illegal immigrants’ health care and education. There’s the revenue we lose out on when illegal immigrants don’t pay income taxes. And there’s a less recognized pot of billions — the billions of dollars of earnings that illegal immigrants wire out of the United States with no tax or penalty.
We have a lot of folks here in the United States from other countries — some are here legally, many of them are not — who go to storefronts or bodegas to wire money to their home country. These transfers are known as remittances.
In 2006, the Government Accountability Office reported that the United States was the largest remittance-sending country in the world. They estimated that nearly $38 billion was remitted by foreign-born residents in the United States to households abroad. The Center for Immigration Studies has estimated that roughly $25 billion is sent from illegal immigrants annually. This latter estimate is supported by the fact that the Congressional Budget Office and similar international reports repeatedly show that illegal immigrants send more remittances than legal immigrants.
As alarming as those numbers are, it’s gotten a whole lot worse. It’s the reason why in both 2013 and 2015 I introduced legislation, the “Remittance Status Verification Act,” to fix this. I call this the “Wire Act” for short.
My bill would require a fee on remittances for customers who wire money to another country but cannot prove that they are in the United States legally. The fee would be used to enhance border security. Basically, we would be able to dramatically improve border security while making illegal immigrants pay for it.
In conjunction with my legislation, I asked the federal government watchdog, GAO, to conduct a new updated audit of how much these remittances are costing our country. The GAO reports I’ve released (GAO-16-60 & GAO-16-65) include recent estimates of how much money is being sent out of the U.S. and where it’s going.
As it turns out, the U.S. is still the largest remittance-sending country in the world. In 2014 alone, foreign-born residents sent away an estimated $54.2 billion, most of it going to Mexico. While I’m all for supporting family members wherever they may live, we need to face the facts: A large majority of this is likely being sent from people living and making money illegally in the United States.
For a nation struggling with debt and slow economic growth, and not doing nearly enough to crack down on illegal immigration, allowing this leak of money out of our economy to continue with little accountability is nothing short of idiocy.
We also have evidence that many of those illegals who are remitting money are more likely to be illegal immigrant households receiving Social Security, health care benefits, unemployment insurance and/or stimulus money. Is it really fair for those individuals to live off our tax dollars but send untaxed, under-the-table money abroad?
These GAO reports clearly demonstrate a lack of accountability and oversight that allows drug trafficking and human smuggling organizations — even terrorist — to abuse this system, often times using illegals to do their work.
My bill is simple: The business providing the service would simply require documentation of legal status. If the person wiring money is here legally, great. If he can’t prove legal status, then he gets slapped with a fee which goes directly to border security and enforcement. This would cause two separate effects, both very positive. On one side of the coin, GAO estimates that my bill could bring in up to $1 billion from illegal immigrants that would go directly towards border security and enforcement. On the flip side, the report shows it may discourage illegal immigrants from sending the money in the first place. If that dynamic occurs, it would likely lower the amount of revenue raised for border security, but illegal immigration would be strongly discouraged and the money would stay in the U.S. economy.
This is the sort of common sense policy the great majority of Americans want to see out of Washington. Congress should do its job and listen to the cries of the American people. Then maybe Congress will realize there’s no problem our American common sense, smartly and deliberately applied, can’t fix.
Senator David Vitter is the senior senator from Louisiana, chairman of the U.S. Senate Border Security Caucus, and deputy chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and National Interest. This piece originally appeared at the Washington Examiner.