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Immigration reform: How much will it cost US taxpayers?

The conservative Heritage Foundation says that immigration reform will cost $5 trillion over 50 years. But some conservatives are firing back, saying the study doesn't look at all the variables.

By Staff writer / May 6, 2013

Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, gestures during a news conference on immigration reform Monday in Washington. The Heritage Foundation presented a study that immigration legislation would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion to provide government benefits for millions of people now living in the US illegally. Supporters of the legislation call the study deeply flawed.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

The war over how much immigration reform will cost American taxpayers has begun.

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The conservative Heritage Foundation estimated Monday that legalizing the roughly 11 million undocumented people in the US could cost $5 trillion more than the status quo over the next 50 years.

“Amnesty consists of a very, very large burden that will be placed on the US taxpayer ... at a time when the country is already going bankrupt,” said Heritage analyst Robert Rector, the report’s author, in a conference call with reporters. “It’s simply something we cannot afford to do.”

But that estimate is a matter of intense dispute, and some of the study’s most vocal critics include conservative analysts and lawmakers who point out that it ignores any economic benefit from new American workers and points more to problems with welfare than immigration reform.

How the debate is resolved could play a crucial role in determining whether budget-conscious conservatives who have balked at immigration reform in the past will be able to get on board this time.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative economist who once helmed the Congressional Budget Office, has estimated that the Senate’s immigration reform measure would cut the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion over the next decade alone, for example. 

The Heritage report argues that the undocumented will consume $9.4 trillion in government services, particularly Medicare and Social Security, and pay only $3.1 trillion in taxes over next half-century. That’s versus roughly $1 trillion in costs for the same population should no reform occur, Mr. Rector said.

The study argues that while the children of undocumented immigrants will likely be better off than their parents from an educational and economic standpoint, they will represent only a slight drag on US government services and won’t come close to paying off the $6 trillion gap.

“We desperately need welfare reform,” said Derrick Morgan, Heritage’s vice president for domestic and economic policy. “Putting unlawful immigrants into our current welfare state would be disastrous for them and our fiscal situation.”

Heritage’s estimate has been much-anticipated because a similar study in 2007 was used by critics of the comprehensive immigration reform effort to bludgeon that bill among conservatives.

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