Tags: Heritage | Foundation: | Immigration | Bill | Cost | $2.6 | Trillion

Heritage Foundation: Immigration Bill to Cost $2.6 Trillion

Sunday, 17 June 2007 12:00 AM

It sounds scary.

The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that the taxpayer cost of amnesty for 12 million illegal immigrants could be as high as $2.6 trillion by the time they reach their 80s.

With more than half of adult illegal immigrants thought to be low-skilled and lacking a high school education, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank contends that they and their descendents wouldn't come close to covering their cost to society for decades to come.

To put $2.6 trillion in perspective, the 2006 U.S. gross domestic product - or the value of all goods and services produced here - was about $13 trillion.

The report was released amid Senate debate on the controversial immigration legislation. It didn't take long for the numbers to ricochet among conservative talk radio, TV shows and on the Internet.

To be sure, such dire projections lit a fire under opponents who helped shoot down the initial Senate proposal to legalize residency for illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, a much less alarming Congressional Budget Office estimate released around the same time barely registered in some media.

The CBO found that the proposed earned legalization program - which opponents interpret as an amnesty - would reap a surplus of $26.5 billion over 10 years' time.

Legalized immigrants would have to pay fees and back taxes, the CBO said, and continue paying taxes as they worked on temporary visas. Current law would bar them for a decade or more from receiving most types of federal assistance, except for emergency medical aid.

Faced with such contradictory findings, what's the public to believe?

Those with deep convictions about the immigration debate often latch onto studies that tend to bolster their beliefs, dismissing those that don't. People straddling the issue may end up not knowing what to think.

Tom Hudson, a tax attorney and chairman of the Republican Party in Placer County, Calif., a GOP stronghold, leaves no doubt as to which study he'd agree with.

Low-skilled illegal immigrants, he said, "while they might be hardworking, honest people, are parasitically living off the rest of us."

Hudson doesn't buy the arguments of business people in his own county that they need immigrant labor.

He said farmers could attract American workers by increasing wages. "For $10 an hour, you might have a line of people waiting to do that work," Hudson said. "Someone working at Wendy's might rather go pick peaches."

Robert Rector, author of the Heritage Foundation report, said he uses census data and other statistics to calculate costs of public services, including public education and an assortment of spending from police to parks.

"All I'm doing is counting things," Rector said. "When (other researchers) claim immigrants give us a bigger economy, and Americans benefit, that's not true."

Though he concedes that the children of immigrants generally become more educated than their parents, Rector said their wages still would not offset the burden to other taxpayers.

Pro-immigrant groups are swift to denounce Rector's research as politically slanted and full of holes. Some researchers find his methods dubious.

Benjamin Johnson, director of the Immigration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C, called the Heritage Foundation report a "dehumanizing portrayal" that paints immigrants as "fiscal freeloaders" while dismissing credible research on their contributions to the economy.

He said Rector underestimates the payroll taxes that illegal immigrants pay, and inflates their reliance on public services.

"These people are much more than the sum of their tax payments minus benefits received," Johnson said, noting that aging America relies on immigrants to replenish its work force.

"Very few people pass this fiscal benefits test. My mom was a waitress and my father was a forklift driver with three kids in public schools," Johnson added. "Their contributions didn't cover all those costs."

Some of the fiercest criticism of Rector's work comes from other conservatives, including researchers at the free-market Cato Institute in Washington, D.C, which advocates small government and cuts in public assistance for everyone - citizens included.

"Those numbers are way out of whack," said Daniel Griswold, Cato's trade policy director, of Rector's findings. "The answer is not to limit the number of workers in our economy."

Businesses that hire large numbers of immigrants, including California farmers, say their industries need more visas to sponsor immigrant workers to fill jobs.

In California, with its substantial immigration population, resentment tends to run high because state programs do cover some medical costs for the foreigners. Most of the expenses are for prenatal care, births and cancer screening and emergency treatment.

According to the latest figures available, in 2004, more than 43 percent of births paid for by Medi-Cal - or about $400 million - were those of illegal immigrant women. The expenditure is a result of the state's decision to invest in prenatal care and avoid more costly emergency or post-natal care.

Averaging the costs of public health care for illegal immigrants nationally, the investment per U.S. household is about $11 a year, according to James P. Smith of the Rand Corp., a research institute in Santa Monica.

The burden on California's Medi-Cal program isn't lost on state legislators, who have long demanded that more federal funds be shifted to states to offset these costs.

Smith hadn't read Rector's report on the fiscal burden of aged immigrants. But he was skeptical of its conclusions, particularly the $2.6 trillion total cost estimate. "That seems excessive," he said.

Smith is considered one of the leading researchers on immigration and was chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel that produced a report in 1997 still regarded as the most objective fiscal-impact study done yet. Both sides of the immigration debate often quote from it.

That report found that immigrants added as much as $10 billion to the economy annually, helping keep U.S. industries competitive, while also encouraging new business and investment.

The report did conclude that some U.S. high school dropouts had seen wages fall slightly - about 5 percent - because of the huge influx of immigrant workers. But the vast majority of Americans were thought to be enjoying a healthier economy because of an increased labor supply and lower prices.

In California, though, the report found that native residents were paying $1,178 more in state and local taxes a year to cover immigrants' share of public services.

Immigrants without high school educations, the report agreed, may receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes during their lifetime.

However, Smith said, the children of low-skilled immigrants "do pretty well" when it comes to the American dream of climbing the educational and career ladder.

"Even a native-born low-skilled worker is going to end up a negative (in taxes vs. benefits)," Smith said.

Copyright 200, The Sacramento Bee. Reprinted With Permission

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It sounds scary. The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that the taxpayer cost of amnesty for 12 million illegal immigrants could be as high as $2.6 trillion by the time they reach their 80s. With more than half of adult illegal immigrants thought to be...
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2007-00-17
Sunday, 17 June 2007 12:00 AM
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