Economy / Immigration

The Heritage Foundation’s Intellectual Dishonesty

With gun control stalled and budget negotiations on the back burner, all eyes have now turned to immigration reform. President Obama is seeking (and really needs) a large second term accomplishment to solidify and bolster his legacy.  Republicans, meanwhile, are trapped at the bottom of an electoral well staring up at 70% of Latinos and 90% of African Americans who voted for the other guy.  Major figures on both sides of the aisle have come together to solve the utterly irrational immigration system that exists today.

Enter the Heritage Foundation.  During the last immigration reform effort in 2006-2007, Heritage released an influential study that warned against the dire fiscal calamity that would ensue should Congress approve a “pathway to citizenship,” or as some call it amnesty – a term thrown around so rigorously as to render it almost meaningless.  This week they struck again, revising their study and reasserting their position that amnesty will have disastrous consequences.

Their updated version, which can be read in summary here, estimates that the current undocumented population, if legalized, would “receive $9.4 trillion in government benefits and services and pay $3.1 trillion in taxes.”  Thus, as their homepage banner emphatically states, the cost to YOU of the immigration bill is $6.3 trillion.

After Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, then Heritage President and co-founder Ed Fuelner addressed his staff saying “We are the flagship conservative organization that carries on the Reagan legacy. We are the people conservatives look to stop the Obama revolution in its tracks.”  But in this case, conservative organizations, including Americans for Tax Reform and the Cato Institute, have strongly rebuked Heritage and its findings.

There are various holes to poke in the Heritage study, including the fact that they don’t incorporate economic benefits of immigration and they don’t account for the limitations on citizenship included in the “amnesty” provision.  But many people smarter than me have addressed the flawed basis for the study (read, for example, Doug Holtz-Eakin, Grover Norquist, Matt Yglesias, Dylan Matthews, even Tim Kane, a former Heritage immigration scholar).

I’ll let the economists address the study’s flaws (and there are many).  The other part of this story worth noting is how politically dishonest this document truly is.  As Ryan Lizza wrote in The New Yorker, after 2008, Feulner sought to transform Heritage from an academic quasi-university into a political powerhouse, a process come to fruition with the creation of Heritage Action – its 501(c)(4) arm – and the appointment of former Senator Jim DeMint as President.

They have gained considerable influence – particularly among conservative Republicans in the House – and along with groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity are a force to be reckoned with.  But when it comes to this immigration report, they purposefully muddied the waters, maybe providing political cover to members skeptical of the bill, but losing significant credibility in the process.

For one thing, they tout their study as an analysis of the immigration bill and emphasize the cost of the bill to you, John Q. Taxpayer.  But the study only addresses one part of the immigration bill – the path to citizenship.  It ignores H-1B provisions, a guest worker program, new STEM provisions, new agriculture visas, and much more.  The average voter, who scans political news or receives the Heritage Foundation’s daily email, is not made aware of this fact.  They are only told that the cost of immigration reform is $6.3 trillion.

Secondly, studies of this sort – projections of future costs/benefits – are generally done on a 10 year scale.  That is the standard practice of the non-profit Congressional Budget Office as well as policy papers from think-tanks around Washington.  But the Heritage study, stating that the bill costs $6.3 trillion, projects out over 50 years, but many will assume the usual 10 year scale, making the number all the more misleading.  Once again, this is not a fact that is readily available to the average reader who scans through the report or Heritage press materials.

The Heritage Foundation is a powerful organization with a rich conservative history.  They are an invaluable voice for the conservative movement with unmatched reach and influence both in Washington and around the country.  But this study, both its findings and the way they’re sold, reflects an intellectual dishonesty that is below their stature.

Immigration is as complex and difficult a political issue as exists today.  Accomplishing something significant will require a vigorous but honest debate on the issues that make up comprehensive reform.  Hopefully the Heritage Foundation will decide soon that it actually wants to contribute.