Group says immigration reform would be costly -- but study uses old numbers

May Day protesters shout slogans calling for immigration reform as they make their way through Downtown Los Angeles.
May Day protesters shout slogans calling for immigration reform as they make their way through Downtown Los Angeles.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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A new report by the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation finds that if 11 million undocumented immigrants were to be given a path to citizenship, they would generate a lifetime fiscal deficit of more than $6 trillion for the federal government.

Heritage research fellow Robert Rector came up with that number by looking at what he calls the average undocumented low-wage worker.

"Over half of illegal immigrants do not have a high school degree," he said. "The average illegal immigrant has ten years of education, so when you grant them amnesty, you are granting them access to over eighty different welfare programs, social security, and Medicare."

And granting these immigrants government benefits over a lifetime would cost more than what they would pay in taxes, Rector said.

But a pro-immigrant group, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said Rector doesn't take into account immigrants' contributions.

Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez spoke about those contributions to the U.S. economy during a visit to the University of Southern California last week.

"The key thing in the economy is not so much small business, it's new businesses," Gutierrez said. "Fifty percent of all new jobs are created by companies that are less than five years old, and many of those are started by immigrants. So ironically, the argument that this is the wrong time for immigration reform, is just the opposite: This is the right time because we have 8% unemployment."

Nobody has done a thorough analysis of what this round of immigration reform would cost. A new analysis by the non partisan  Congressional Budget Office is expected soon.

The Heritage Foundation's report is based on a study released in 2007. The Congressional Budget Office issued its last report in 2006, and found that most estimates on the costs of immigration at that time assume that gross domestic product and employment remain fixed -- which can give a false picture.

Adding jobs to the workforce would increase gross domestic product -- which is a measure of the production of goods and services. Adding more workers who pay taxes would be good for the overall economy.