SAVE: A Useful Tool for State Agencies

By Jessica Vaughan September 2005

Testimony Before The Joint Committee on Housing, Massachusetts State House

September 20, 2005

Jessica M. Vaughan
Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Immigration Studies


Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to testify on S. 799, which would direct the public housing authorities of Massachusetts to verify the immigration status of applicants for public housing using the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program.

My name is Jessica Vaughan. I live in Franklin, Massachusetts, and I am a senior policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS),[1] based in Washington, DC. The Center is a non-partisan, independent research institute devoted to the study of the effects of immigration. We also assist federal, state and local lawmakers in developing policy solutions on immigration issues. I have worked with federal lawmakers and with state agencies and legislators in two other New England states (Vermont and New Hampshire) on immigration policy issues at the state level.

Illegal immigration is a serious and growing problem in the United States. The Center estimates that a population of roughly 11 million illegal aliens resides in the country, with about 100,000 residing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.[2]

Our research shows that the costs to government of this large illegal immigrant population are substantial. We estimated that in 2002, the cost to the federal government was roughly $10 billion, even after accounting for taxes paid by illegal aliens. These costs are primarily for Medicaid, health care for the uninsured, food assistance, programs, the federal prison and court systems, and education funding.[3] I am not aware of a similar study that has been done for Massachusetts, but judging from the size of the population and the studies that have been done for other states, the cost is probably something on the order of half a billion dollars a year in state outlays for education, health care, the criminal justice system, and public assistance in various forms, including public housing.

The fiscal costs of illegal immigration at the state level are evident to most anyone working in state government. Most people also realize that immigration policy is a federal responsibility. But if you're waiting for the federal government to solve this problem, you're going to be waiting a very long time. There are no proposals currently being considered at the federal level that will solve this problem.

That is why states around the country are beginning to take the initiative and adopt policies to address this problem, both to minimize the fiscal costs, and also to contribute to the larger federal effort to reduce illegal immigration. The SAVE program, which is used by numerous state agencies around the country, is a proven low-cost, reliable, non-discriminatory way to serve these goals and to help enforce the existing General Law on eligibility for public housing.

The SAVE program enables employees of state agencies to obtain electronic verification of a benefits applicant's immigration status directly from the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking the status of non-citizens. The database is accessible to authorized users via the Internet. The user obtains a response to queries in three to five seconds, so the process does not significantly add to the benefits processing time. The rare complicated cases can be resolved within four working days. It's downright cheap to use -- the per/transaction fee ranges from four to 32 cents, depending on the computer systems in use at the state agency.[4]

Most importantly, SAVE takes the guesswork out of screening applicants, so that employees of state agencies do not have to become quasi-immigration agents or make judgments regarding an applicant's immigration status that they are not qualified to make. Instead, the immigration agency is responsible for providing the information.

This legislation is a realistic approach to a difficult and complicated problem facing our Commonwealth and the rest of the nation, and is consistent with the direction many states are moving. It is not a silver bullet, but should be viewed as part of a larger strategy to deal with illegal immigration that sees federal and state government as members of the same team. This strategy acknowledges that the population of more than 10 million illegal immigrants will not be deported overnight, nor even in the next couple of years; nor will the federal government enact a mass amnesty to legalize this population. Instead, we must rely on an array of policies to increase the day-to-day enforcement of immigration laws, diminish the draw of employment, and encourage voluntary compliance with immigration laws. Eventually, those who are here in violation of our laws will begin to realize that they can no longer hide or gain access to the benefits intended for legal residents, and a large share will choose to return home on their own.

My organization has identified a number of other policies that can be adopted by state governments that will have the same effect.[5] These include:

  1. Require that anyone doing business with the state to comply with federal laws prohibiting the employment of illegal aliens, and verify the status of employees.
  2. Explicit cooperation between state and local law enforcement officers and federal immigration agents, to identify illegal aliens and launch removal proceedings.
  3. Refrain from subsidizing the employment of illegal aliens through day labor centers and denying access to publicly-funded benefits.
  4. Deny illegal aliens access to public higher education, financial assistance, and in-state tuition rates.

I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.


[1] www.cis.org

[2] See The Economy Slowed, but Immigration Didn't: the Foreign Born Population, 2000-2004, by Steven A. Camarota, November, 2004, at http://cis.org/node/246

[3] The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget, by Steven Camarota, August, 2004, at http://cis.org/sites/cis.org/files/articles/2004/fiscalexec..HTML

[4] See http://uscis.gov/graphics/services/SAVE.htm for a more complete description of the SAVE program.

[5] For the perspective of other state legislators, see "State Lawmakers Address Immigration Challenges", a panel discussion hosted by CIS on August 3, 2005, at http://cis.org/node/652