WASHINGTON — One of the nation’s leading conservatives on Tuesday assailed a new Heritage Foundation report that says a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy would cost American taxpayers more than $6 trillion.
Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, told the congressional Joint Economic Committee — which includes Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. — that the Heritage report was flawed because it included costs of legal immigrants already in the U.S.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, released a report Monday saying a sweeping Senate immigration bill would cost U.S. taxpayers $6.3 trillion in benefits for illegal immigrants over the next 50 years.
The rift between Norquist and the Heritage Foundation reflects divisions among Republicans in Congress as the U.S. Senate begins debate on a sweeping bipartisan immigration bill this week.
High-profile Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who helped write the Senate bill, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, criticized the Heritage report on Monday. Some House Republicans, along with Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, praised the study.
“At a time when our nation’s major entitlements are already nearing bankruptcy, we cannot afford to add another $6.3 trillion in long-term net costs to already over-burdened state, local, and federal governments,” Sessions said in a statement.
Some Republican strategists have suggested that their party embrace immigration reform, including a so-called path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally. The strategy comes in the aftermath of a 2012 election cycle that saw Hispanics overwhelmingly favor Democrats.
Norquist, perhaps most famous for encouraging members of Congress to sign a “no new taxes” pledge, described Heritage historically as a “Ronald Reagan-Jack Kemp” institution, saying those Republican leaders recognized contributions immigrants made to the American economy.
Norquist said Heritage’s tune changed in 2006 when it released a report citing high costs of a “path to citizenship.”
“Much of the costs they attribute are there anyway — they are for people who are citizens today,” Norquist said. “Forty percent of the cost is for education and 80 percent of the people are citizens now, but they still stick that on as a cost. They added the cost of a 5-year-old legal resident into the cost. It got worse, the quality of the work.”
The Heritage Foundation explained its calculations in an email to the Journal.
“Legal adult residents are removed from the illegal households when calculating the benefits,” wrote Jason Richwine, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “Citizen children of illegals are included in the cost calculations because they would not be here in the absence of illegal immigration.”
On Monday, former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the Heritage Foundation’s new president, dismissed criticism of the foundation’s report.
“It’s clear a number of people in Washington who might benefit from an amnesty, as well as a number of people in Congress, do not want to consider the costs,” DeMint said, according to the Associated Press. “No sensible thinking person could read this study and conclude that over 50 years it (the immigration bill) could possibly have a positive economic impact.”
Authors of the Heritage report have acknowledged their report does not attempt to offer a comprehensive analysis of the entire 844-page immigration bill authored by a group of eight senators from both parties. The legislation would boost border security, change legal immigration and worker programs, require all employers to check their workers’ legal status and offer eventual citizenship to many of the immigrants already living in the country illegally.
Norquist said the Heritage report inadvertently makes a case for overhauling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not for scrapping the immigration bill. He said without major structural changes, those programs are unsustainable regardless of immigration reform.
“It’s an argument against having children — it’s a bad argument for not having children — but it’s a good argument to fix the entitlement programs,” he said.
“I share concerns about the growth of the welfare state,” Norquist added in written testimony. “But to me it is clear that our entitlement problem exists regardless of immigration levels.”
Norquist hailed the Senate immigration bill generally, but said it needed a “more robust guest worker program.”
Heinrich asked if Norquist agreed with provisions in the Senate bill that would increase the number of visas granted to skilled and high-tech workers. Norquist said he did.
“Why in the world with someone who has all that talent and who wants to become an American would we tell them to go live in France or something like that?” Norquist said.
Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., have both said they support the general framework of the bipartisan bill under consideration in the Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin considering the immigration reform bill on Thursday.