The GOP Starts Eating Its Own on Immigration

Now conservatives get to deal with the Heritage Foundation’s phony math.

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FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2013 file photo, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. gestures as he leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington. Flake, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. met with key House conservatives this week to promote legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, McCain’s communications director said Friday.

The conservative Heritage Foundation today – in a re-run of theirs from 2007 – released a "cost estimate" for immigration reform. Not surprisingly, Heritage predicts that the price tag of immigration reform will be just shy of astronomical: $6.3 trillion over the next few decades.

Back in 2007, Heritage helped prevent comprehensive immigration reform from becoming law by claiming that it would cost $2.6 trillion (in the last six years, something evidently happened to more than double Heritage's estimate). In the intervening years, the GOP's trouble attracting minority voters has only increased, so this time, Republicans in Congress and their allies who want to see immigration reform become a reality were ready.

"Here we go again," tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the so-called "gang of eight" in the Senate. "New Heritage study claims huge cost for Immigration Reform. Ignores economic benefits." Former Congressional Budget Office director and McCain campaign adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin wrote that the study "failed to consider the implications of reform and instead looked solely at the cost of low-skilled immigrants." The Immigration Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center, cochaired by Republican former  Gov. Haley Barbour and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, said in a statement, "We strongly believe that this study's modeling and assumptions are fundamentally flawed."

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

For the record, the Congressional Budget Office found that the 2007 immigration bill – which Heritage said would cost $2.6 trillion – would have actually boosted revenue by tens of billions of dollars. And past Heritage studies on immigration have been, to put it mildly, a bit off the mark.

But critiquing the Heritage study on an economic basis means accepting that it is meant as a good-faith effort to assess the impact of proposed legislation. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent and the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky both note, that isn't really the point. As Tomasky writes:

The Heritage Foundation has now come out against immigration reform, without exactly taking that position, indeed while claiming to take the opposite position … This is an old conservative play – go after the cost of something, which permits them not to be against the idea per se, only against its fiscal ramifications. "We're not against immigration reform. Quite the contrary! We're just against the cost of this particular bill." It's a cousin of the old saw one always heard back in the Cold War days: "We're not against arms-control treaties in general at all, but we are certainly against this one," which just happened to be the case with regard to every single one.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Heritage analysts even freely admit that their estimate isn't of the gang of eight's specific proposal, but about some phantom comprehensive reform bill. Adding in one more level of absurdity, Heritage chose not to use so-called "dynamic scoring" when assessing the impact of immigration reform, even though most of the time it screams bloody murder when dynamic scoring is not used to figure out how much a bill might cost.

So Heritage is not really trying to figure out what immigration reform will actually do to the economy; it is just giving the right-wing base a number to wield as a cudgel. But this time, other conservatives, rather than progressives, are trying to show Heritage's politics-dressed-up-as-math for what it really is. Those of us on the other end of the political spectrum just get to sit back and watch.

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