WASHINGTON—Illegal immigration has long been a contentious issue in the Republican Party, and the current debate is no different. Partisan rifts are the nasty side effect of bipartisan coalitions aimed at reforming the nation’s immigration system.
Now, three weeks after the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight released its immigration bill, the battle has spilled into activist circles as conservative groups wage an ideological war to influence Republican lawmakers. The Heritage Foundation this week released a report on the economic effects of legalizing the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States, which it says will trigger a lifetime “fiscal deficit” of $6.3 trillion.
“We should not be spending $6 trillion on people whose claim to that money is that they broke our laws,” lead author Robert Rector said. “We don’t have $6 trillion to throw away, and this is the last place we should be spending it if we had it.”
Rector’s report came under immediate and widespread criticism from other conservative organizations, including experts with groups that are usually aligned with The Heritage Foundation: the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Cato Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, the Kemp Foundation, and the American Action Network.
Dissenters’ primary objection is that the Heritage report uses static, rather than dynamic, scoring. In other words, it estimates illegal immigrants will take in more than $9.4 trillion in government benefits and only contribute $3.1 trillion in taxes during their lifetimes, but it doesn’t assume any positive economic impact in gross domestic product (GDP).
“He didn’t assume that the economy would increase in size, which is just absurd,” Alex Nowrasteh, the Cato Institute’s lead immigration analyst, told me. Nowrasteh cited academic studies from several sources and said even the most pessimistic studies agree that legalizing illegal immigrants would boost “the size of GDP and increase wages for most Americans.”
Rector responded to his critics Tuesday in a briefing at The Heritage Foundation, arguing that his methodology is “far more nuanced” than dynamic scoring. He said immigrants, who on average have about a 10th grade education, haven’t provided a net increase to the economy since the end of World War II.
Rector said he believes more than 11 million illegal immigrants currently live in the United States, so the $6.3 trillion net deficit is a “minimal estimate,” but critics accused him of coming up with a large number to scare away fiscal conservatives in Congress who might otherwise be inclined to vote for reform.
They also complained the Heritage report doesn’t address the comprehensive immigration bill filed last month in the Senate. Rector said Tuesday he hasn’t read the whole bill, but he’s confident it’s “like all the others in the last 10 years.”
Nowrasteh, who said he’s read the entire bill, expressed “disappointment” in Heritage: “I grew up reading their stuff and they always emphasized the importance of dynamic scoring. To see them retreat on that is unfortunate.”
The Heritage study projects that doing nothing about the illegal immigrants already in the country would cost taxpayers about $1 trillion. Its solution for the problem is increased enforcement for employers who hire illegal immigrants, leading to what former presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year dubbed “self-deportation.”
The report doesn’t estimate how much self-deportation would cost taxpayers, but UCLA professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda projects it would cost $2.6 trillion in lost GDP over 10 years. If the Senate bill makes it through committee, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will score its net effect on the economy.
Six years ago, during the last immigration debate, the CBO estimated that legislation would provide a net improvement on the government’s budget deficit, but a similar Heritage report said it would cost about $2.6 trillion. The report was credited with playing a key role in defeating the 2007 legislation.
AEI’s Medline Zavodny said more than a document about immigration reform, Heritage’s research is an indictment on the growth of government. “What the report reveals is not the broken nature of our current immigrant system,” she wrote, “but rather the broken nature of our welfare state.”