Undocumented Oklahomans are woven into the fabric of our communities in countless ways. Many have lived here for decades as they raise U.S.-born children, and they often work difficult, labor-intensive jobs that few legal residents will take. As the race to replace Governor Fallin heats up, it’s disappointing – if unsurprising – that dubious claims about the effects of undocumented immigration have appeared in candidates’ platforms. 

While the value of undocumented immigrants to our state can’t be measured merely by their economic costs and benefits, it’s important to set the record straight: by any fair estimate, undocumented Oklahomans contribute a great deal to our economy and state tax base, and they would contribute even more if granted legal status. Voters should recognize that Oklahoma is much better off when our communities unite to reject appeals that minimize the contributions of our neighbors.

Undocumented Oklahomans are a vital force in our economy and tax base

There were about 95,000 undocumented immigrants living in Oklahoma in 2014, accounting for about 1 in every 30 workers in the state. They tend to work in labor-intensive occupations in agriculture, construction, and textile industries. Those are hard jobs that citizen workers are usually reluctant to take, but they’re vital to maintaining our high standard of living.

These undocumented Oklahomans currently contribute about $85 million in state and local taxes per year, according to our best estimates. They pay sales tax directly when they purchase goods and services, just like the rest of us, and they pay property taxes through owning a home or paying rent. Although they are not technically eligible to work, most do, and about 50 to 75 percent of undocumented immigrants pay personal income taxes through IRS-issued individual tax identification numbers or false Social Security numbers. Because they’re not eligible to earn the Earned Income Tax Credit, their effective tax rates are higher than citizens with the same income.

Candidates repeat debunked numbers for political gain

One ad for a gubernatorial candidate features the shocking claim that $623 million is spent on undocumented immigrants in Oklahoma each year. That number comes from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national organization critical of immigration, in a report purporting to calculate the many ways in which the state spends money on undocumented immigrants.

However, that report’s methodology has been thoroughly debunked. The authors deliberately tip the scales in various ways: by using unreasonably high estimates of the undocumented population; including benefits to U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants while excluding the taxes those children pay when they start working; including immigration enforcement costs; assuming health care costs are the same for undocumented immigrants as citizens (they are clearly much lower for immigrants in general); and undercounting sales tax revenue.

It’s not surprising that political candidates use shocking numbers to scare voters into supporting their campaign, but we should remember that data and facts almost always tell a much more complicated story. In this case, the numbers are artificially inflated in so many ways that it’s safe to reject them — and the fear and anger they are meant to stoke — wholesale.

Granting immigrants legal status would increase their contributions to state and local taxes

More comprehensive overviews find mixed evidence when attempting to calculate the costs and benefits of undocumented immigrants to state and local government budgets. Some studies have found that expenditures on services for undocumented immigrants slightly outpace their contributions through taxes, but there’s a clear fix for that: granting undocumented residents legal status to work and pay taxes. Undocumented immigrants’ state and local tax contributions would rise by nearly $20 million in Oklahoma if the federal government took that step.

Undocumented immigrants move to Oklahoma for the same reason that citizens do: to seek out opportunities to work and to raise a family. Their contributions to our economy are vast, and they would be even greater if given the chance to work with legal status. At a time of so much political division, voters of all parties and political leanings should unite to demand constructive solutions to the problems our state faces, rather than fall for old tricks meant to divide us.