Groups spar over immigration bill’s price tag

Wildly varying estimates of the costs and benefits of immigration legislation proposed in the Senate sparked debate Wednesday between groups from across the political spectrum. 

Several policy groups and think tanks have taken a stab at quantifying the economic impact of the 844-page bill, which would require a raft of new regulations. Their disparate findings underscore the challenges facing the bipartisan “gang of eight” senators pushing the legislation.

The liberal-leaning Center for American Progress estimates that the overhaul outlined in the bill would boost gross domestic product  (GDP) by as much as $1.4 trillion over the next decade, while the conservative Heritage Foundation predicts costs totaling $6.3 trillion over 50 years.

During a heated panel discussion hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, representatives from the two organizations and other groups that have studied the bill defended their analyses and sought to discredit one another’s work.

The bill contains provisions designed to expand the country’s worker verification system, an overhaul of visa programs and a new set of proposed regulations allowing undocumented people to become “registered provisional immigrants.”

“Legalizing makes the whole American labor market more efficient and more productive, “ said Robert Lynch, an economics professor and visiting senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Lynch pointed to data showing that undocumented immigrants become more productive members of society when they are granted legal status, in part because they are often able to find better work at higher wages.

Lynch’s view that the immigration bill would bolster the economy was shared by conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who has served both as an adviser to former President George W. Bush and as director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Holtz-Eakin, now president of the American Action Forum, issued his own study of the economic implications of an immigrations reform overhaul, finding that it would raise GDP per capita by over $1,500 and reduce the federal deficit by over $2.5 trillion.

The United States must follow its competitors around the globe in treating immigration as an economic tool, rather than simply a human rights issue, he said.

But the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector countered that the bill would only damage the fragile economy.

Earlier this month, Rector’s assertion that the legislation would cost over $6.3 trillion in the coming decades met with a flurry of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, who questioned his methodology.

On Wednesday, Rector stood by his estimate, arguing that those legalized under the bill would be eligible for healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Social Security.

“Giving them access to all those benefits is going to be extremely expensive,” he said.

Newly legalized immigrants’ access to ObamaCare alone would cost taxpayers $28 billion a year, Rector said.

Lynch and Holtz-Eakin repeatedly disputed Rector’s assertions, with Lynch declaring the Heritage study was “riddled with methodological errors.”

However, Rector found backing from Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which also estimates major costs if the legislation were enacted. CIS identifies itself as nonpartisan and has opposed increased immigration.

Camarota argued that costs would be closely linked with the educational levels of legalized immigrants. As in the case of Americans, those with less education would generally earn less, pay lower taxes and use more public services, he said, describing the bill as "out of touch with economic reality."

Camarota estimated a $29 billion net fiscal deficit if illegal immigrants were legalized and paid taxes and used services at the same rate of legal residents with the same education levels.

Holtz-Eakin acknowledged that no one in Congress would be completely satisfied with the bill, and said passage would require "a coalition of the disgruntled to vote yes."

The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The full Senate is expected to vote on the measure in June.