The Heritage Foundation said Monday that legalizing illegal immigrants would cost taxpayers a net $6.3 trillion over the next 50 years — releasing a report that ignited a venomous battle over an immigration bill and who is truly representing the conservative movement in the debate.
Driving the costs in the Heritage report are simple demographics: Illegal immigrants are more likely to lack a high school education, and more than a third of households headed by illegal immigrants live below the poverty line, meaning those households consume more in services than they pay in taxes.
Heritage said legalizing them improves the situation in the short run but leaves a big hole over the longer term, when they access public health programs and, eventually, Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Over the course of a lifetime, that works out to each illegal immigrant-led household taking $592,000 more in government benefits than would be paid in taxes, said Robert Rector, the report's chief author.
"This should be considered a minimum estimate," Mr. Rector and co-author Jason Richwine wrote. "It probably understates real future costs because it undercounts the number of unlawful immigrants and dependents who will actually receive amnesty and underestimates significantly the future growth in welfare and medical benefits."
Their findings produced a vociferous backlash from Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor and national Republican Party chairman, who said the analysis was "a political document" rather than a "serious" effort at debate.
"This study is designed to try to scare conservative Republicans into thinking the cost here is going to be so gigantic you can't possibly be for it," Mr. Barbour told reporters on a telephone press conference called to try to limit the potential damage from the Heritage study.
He said Heritage used to support broad free-market immigration reforms to help the U.S. economy, and that, Mr. Barbour said, is the conservative stance.
But Heritage President Jim DeMint said the costs of the legislation should give conservatives pause.
Two Senate committees will hold hearings this week on the immigration bill, then the Judiciary Committee will begin to debate amendments Thursday.
Last week, the "Gang of Eight" senators who wrote the bill unveiled a version that tried to clean up some of the problems with the original legislation, including language that repealed E-Verify, the electronic verification system that employers use to check the status of potential hires.
The crux of the bill remains the same, however: Illegal immigrants would get quick legal status, agriculture workers and young adults would get a speedy path to citizenship, and other illegal immigrants would have to wait 13 years for citizenship. In the meantime, the Homeland Security Department would have to make more efforts to secure the border and to track entries and exits at airports and seaports.
Even as the bill faces its first votes, there are plenty of outstanding questions about what the legislation would do to future immigration flows and whether it would be a cost or a benefit to taxpayers.
Heritage said that current illegal immigrants who are put on a pathway to citizenship will use $9.4 trillion in services and benefits, while paying $3.1 trillion in taxes, leaving a net drain to taxpayers.
The report focused strictly on the legalization part of the bill, which meant that it didn't take into account proposals to boost legal immigration, which could end up helping the economy, depending on the mix of skills.
All sides in the debate are rushing to frame the bill on their own terms, and turning to numbers and statistics for backup.
Last week, the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that is advocating a broad legalization, said the bill would reduce illegal immigration in the future because any increase in legal immigration would be more than covered by a drop in illegal entries.
Opponents of the immigration bill disputed those numbers.
Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said even assuming all illegal immigration is halted, the U.S. would have to create more than 30 million jobs in the next decade in order to make up for the past few years plus accommodate population growth and the surge of legal immigration envisioned in the bill.
He said the conclusions from the Heritage study are obvious with a look at the demographics of the population in question.
"What Heritage is showing is there's a high cost to cheap labor," he said. "If you really think that high school dropouts are good for the economy and good for taxpayers, we could produce them domestically. We are, actually."
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative-leaning American Action Forum who joined Mr. Barbour for the conference call, said he drew a different conclusion from the study — that Social Security and other big spending programs will have to change.
"I read this in many ways as not a study that casts doubt on the value of immigration reform but as a ringing endorsement of the need for entitlement reform," said Mr. Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who has argued for a better legal immigration system to boost the economy.
He said that Heritage made certain assumptions about illegal immigrants, including that they are likely to remain poor and have only limited economic mobility when they are legalized.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said his experience suggests it's difficult to capture the exact demographics and prospects of the population.
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