Skip Navigation

Drivers And Donors: What Immigrants Provide

In March, the California Transplant Donor Network reported an interesting development: The number of registered organ donors in California has increased by 30 percent so far this year. For a number that rarely changes significantly from year to year, this is the only spike in decades. The cause of such a drastic change seems to lie in Assembly Bill 60, a new state law that took effect on January 2nd. The bill, which allows undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses, is the most logical explanation for the 56,000-strong surge in the organ donor registry. That’s because over 90 percent of organ donors register at the Department of Motor Vehicles, meaning that the uptick likely comes from the thousands of undocumented immigrants who have signed up for drivers licenses. The growth in donor rolls is welcome relief for the state’s huge number of people in need of organ transplants; in counties like Tulare, Fresno and Madera, circumstances are especially dire, with only 106 people receiving organ transplants from January to September of last year – out of well over a thousand on the waiting list. The expansion of the donor registry is especially good news for Hispanics currently waiting for organ transplants in California. Of the 23,000 individuals on the transplant waitlist, 40 percent are Hispanic and are therefore more likely to match with a Hispanic organ donor, due to the increased chance of similar blood types among people of the same ethnicity. With the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in California being of Hispanic descent, Assembly Bill 60 could save lives. Yet, while organ donation is a prime example of the contributions that undocumented immigrants make to their fellow Americans, politicians continue to treat them unfairly.

To see how organ donation policies typify the systemic unfairness to which undocumented immigrants are subjected, just consider what they receive in return – or rather, don’t receive – for all of the aforementioned benefits they bring. While undocumented immigrants are now able to donate their organs in California, nationwide they are still largely barred from receiving organ transplants. Patients are often told they need legal status to receive organ transplants. Other, more indirect problems such as lack of health insurance that affect undocumented immigrants also contribute to this deadly problem. Countless undocumented immigrants are forced, due to lack of a social security number, to receive what is considered “emergency” care such as dialysis rather than a transplant. This consistently means that undocumented immigrants have to settle for substandard care, often with fatal consequences. For instance, patients who receive kidney transplants have their life expectancy doubled compared to patients on dialysis. It’s also far more expensive – a $100,000, one-time transplantation can substitute for $80,000-a-year dialysis. Not only is the latter cost much more expensive in the long run, but given that many undocumented immigrants are denied health insurance, it is often passed on to other patients in the form of higher premiums.

Compare all of this with the rhetoric used by politicians like Jeff Sessions, who argues he’s a “minority in the U.S. Senate … in questioning whether we should reward people who came into the country illegally with jobs that Americans would like to do.” Ideologues like Sessions consistently employ similar rhetoric that treats citizenship as a charitable gift or a reward to undeserving people, rather than a right. But this denies the fact that undocumented immigrants provide much more than they take, organs being just the latest example in a series of exploitative policies. For instance, studies find that undocumented immigrants contribute between $90 billion and $140 billion in federal, state and local taxes each year. However, undocumented immigrants are unable to receive many government benefits like federal welfare, disability or unemployment assistance. The total amount of benefits received by undocumented immigrants is estimated at around 5 billion dollars a year, a fraction of what they pay in taxes. Given that these individuals are routinely subjected to poor working conditions, wage theft and job insecurity, their lack of access to much-needed social programs is especially harmful. Yet despite these challenges, undocumented immigrants make up 12.4 percent of the labor force, despite being only 11 percent of the population. As America’s labor force participation rate declines to record lows, it makes no sense to withhold support from some of the United States’ most hardworking and dedicated residents.

Nonetheless, Sessions and his cohort continue to perpetuate a narrative that sees undocumented immigrants as “takers” who are able to steal low-wage jobs with their choice to immigrate. Looking at the campaign donors to these politicians, it is easy to see where the roots of their ideologies lie. For example, Sessions’ top contributor from 2009-2014 was Lockheed Martin, a defense contracting company that received $106 million for border security in fiscal year 2012 and stands to earn a lot more should border security be tightened. This isn’t just a Republican problem either – Lockheed Martin donated $127,000 to President Obama’s reelection campaign, as well as nearly $50,000 to Senator Chuck Schumer, who spearheaded the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013.

The existing narrative around undocumented immigrants needs to change. On both the right and the left, politicians consistently frame the debate in terms of “granting” amnesty, either as a charitable gesture to a marginalized group or as an undeserved gift that would hurt the economy. Neither is true. Citizenship should not be thought of as a gift, but a right. And the claim that undocumented immigrants receive more than they provide to this country, from organs to labor to taxes, is consistently disproven.

About the Author

Mitchell Johnson '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.