Cato Institute Defending Amnesty

The following excerpt from a Cato Institute report has been cited as proof that if illegal aliens were given amnesty they would not become a major drag on the nation’s safety net. Cato is a libertarian, open borders advocacy group.

“In reality, low-income non-citizen immigrants, including adults and children, are generally less likely to receive public benefits than those who are native-born. Moreover, when non-citizen immigrants receive benefits, the value of benefits they receive is usually lower than the value of benefits received by those born in the United States. The combination of lower average utilization and smaller average benefits indicates that the overall cost of public benefits is substantially less for low-income non-citizen immigrants than for comparable native-born adults and children.” [Cato Institute, 2/19/13]

Low-income non-citizen immigrants are generally illegal aliens. That is the case because higher income non-citizen residents are either legal immigrants who do not yet have enough years of residence to become U.S. citizens or are long-term non-immigrants such as H-1B professional workers.

Illegal aliens are precluded by law from receiving public benefits, so it is a no-brainer that they are less likely to receive benefits than those who are native born.

What does CATO’s claim prove about the potential effect if they received amnesty? It certainly doesn’t mean that they would not become a public assistance burden in the future. If their status changed from illegal to legal, then they would be en route to qualifying for welfare benefits the same as legal immigrants. But, unlike those who come in with a visa, most illegal aliens have low levels of schooling, employment skills, and English proficiency – all factors shown by longitudinal studies to hold back employment progress.

The 1996 study for the U.S. Department of Labor that surveyed the 1986 amnesty recipients found that “…34 percent of legalization families, as compared with 17 percent of families nationwide, lived on annual incomes of less than $15,000. Only 18 percent of legalization families, as compared with 59 percent of U.S. families, had incomes exceeding $30,000.” That 1996 study did not include the two-fifths of the amnesty recipients who gained legal status through working in agriculture. Had they been included, the share with poverty level income would surely have been much higher. The $15,000 family income level if adjusted for inflation would be about the current poverty level for a family of four and much less than current entitlement levels to numerous social assistance programs.

Today’s illegal aliens have similar characteristics to those amnestied in 1986. Research by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that “The education profile of adults who are unauthorized immigrants differs markedly from that of U.S.-born adults and from that of other immigrants because unauthorized immigrant adults ages 25-64 are disproportionately likely to have very low education levels.”

Experience with the 1986 amnesty recipients – not meaningless statistics from CATO – indicate the potential welfare burden that would result if a new amnesty were adopted for 11 to 12 million illegal aliens and their family members who would come to join them.

About Author


Jack, who joined FAIR’s National Board of Advisors in 2017, is a retired U.S. diplomat with consular experience. He has testified before the U.S. Congress, U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and has authored studies of immigration issues. His national and international print, TV, and talk radio experience is extensive (including in Spanish).


  1. avatar

    I am actually a Libertarian and rely upon the scholarly publications at Cato quite often, among others. They generally do great work and provide in-depth analysis of topics that is not found elsewhere.

    That being said, I have never agreed with the prevailing views regarding immigration in the Libertarian Party and at Cato. It should be noted, however, that not all Libertarians or Cato scholars agree with the Open Borders/Amnesty position; they just have the loudest voice and the most members at this point. It has amused me to some degree when I read Cato articles that break things down in an objective and factual manner, yet the immigration pieces are most often opinionated and shallow. They also base their arguments upon the notion that sovereign border controls are unnecessary, in regard to immigration, because personal property rights allows individuals control over their own “micro-States.” This viewpoint results from a surprising omission of the efforts by State and Federal governments to undermine private property rights and involvement in our personal lives. In a completely Libertarian society, it would work; that’s not what we’re living in and my fellow Libertarians need to get a grip on reality!

  2. avatar
    Bruno Francis on

    CATO is missing the point! Illegal aliens have broken our laws. Does anyone remeber what our laws mean to this country? Why is it ok to break our laws and win a prize of citizenship??!! Illegal aliens already win a prize with anchor babies, because they rape from hard working Americian citizens monies from our social security office. These freebies include food stamps, HUD housing, car allowances, medical care and so on. Wow! Not even our military gets this type of treatment. I know this from personal experience because of several veterans that I know that need medical, housing, food and lots of other care but don’t receive it because the illegal alien receives their freebies first and if and when any veterans need help/assistance they are last on the list with few dollars left to help them.

  3. avatar
    cynthia curran on

    My suggestion is get rid of free and reduce lunch programs and illegals would be marching aganst Cato. A lot of illegals support labor unions since they know Cato is using them for cheap labor.

  4. avatar
    cynthia curran on

    Cato does bad reserach, Free and Reduce lunch programs usually cost more than food stamps since kids can be on it from Kingergadern to 12 grade. Also, a lot of illegal immirgants have a legal spouse which means in Calfornia they can also collect food stamps. Most of the reserach using low use of welfare is faculity. The Center for immirgation studies shown that most illegals in Los Angeles and Orange County coud not afford to live there if the taxpayers which pay for their health care and kids education and free and reduce lunch programs. In fact, legal and illegal Hispanics were 3 times on a welfare program according to the Center for Immirgation Studies than natives which tend to be white.

  5. avatar
    cynthia curran on

    Is it a no brainer, in Orange County free and reduce lunch programs cost 2 times food stamps since the OC has a low level of food . InOrange County emergency health care cost more than Medicaid since the white population in Orange County has a low level. Santa Ana has a lot of govenment money for helath clinics that Newport Beach doesn’t. Young illegals in Santa Ana cost 5 times more than whites in Orange County,schooling, government health services, and illegality getting government support because of American children. Cato has lied for 10 years they known that Hispanics and many of them chldren of illegal immirgants are on the dole over 50 percent in the state of Calif.

  6. avatar
    cynthia curran on

    Illegal aliens are precluded by law from receiving public benefits, so it is a no-brainer that they are less likely to receive benefits than those who are native born.
    In Orange County legal and illegal Hispanics combined are on welfare over 2 times the white rate.

  7. avatar
    cynthia curran on

    Well, Cato is blind to the fact on California illegal immirgants cost a lot more than native whites since their children on 3 times more on free and reduce lunch programs. Anahiem City 86 percent and Santa Ana 77 percent. Saddelback School district 25 percent and most of those arechildren of illegal immirgants.

  8. avatar

    The idea that low income low education individuals are NOT going to use government assistance at greater rates is PREPOSTEROUS.

  9. avatar

    I’ll Sum It Up

    Mother Earth compared the carbon footprint of two Hummers to a dog in America.

    Imagine what the carbon footprint in America of one extra human being is…..20 Hummers?