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.