Conservatives vs. Rubio over immigration reform

Legalizing immigrants too costly, Heritage Foundation and National Review complain, in worrying sign for reform

Published May 7, 2013 1:20PM (EDT)

Months ago I was pretty sure that immigration reform (the real kind, with a reasonable "path to citizenship" for people already here) would fail, for the same reasons it failed last time (white populism). More recently, I got slightly hopeful, especially after Rand Paul won over some of the most extreme conservatives in the House. Now, belatedly, my original argument for skepticism is coming true. Conservative movement institutions are doing all they can to kill the reform movement. The National Review and the Heritage Foundation just provided waffling opponents of comprehensive reform all the excuses they need to vote against any bill, and gave more ammunition to people opposed to it to begin with.

Just a few short years after putting him on a cover with the line "Yes, He Can," the National Review is now referring on its May 20 cover to "Rubio's Folly," complete with a photo of Marco laughing in a sort of sinister-looking fashion, flanked by John McCain (boo!) and Chuck Schumer (hissss!!). The cover story is by Mark Krikorian, a longtime professional opponent of both illegal and legal immigration. He is the director of the nativist Center for Immigration Studies. He would have been opposed to any comprehensive immigration reform proposal that wasn't simply "send them all back." Indeed, he's been in full-on "whatever it is, I'm against it" mode since January. Despite that, the line he takes in his cover story is that Rubio promised conservatives something reasonable, or at least palatable, and now that we know more about the proposal it is clear that it is far too generous to the illegals, who will only have to pay $1,000 in fines, which won't even count as fines because "the money would go into a slush fund for DHS to dole out to groups such as La Raza ..." (I don't know either.) Plus, worst of all, it increases legal immigration!

These are all complaints Krikorian would have had (and indeed ones that he did have) before there was a proposal to be against. The point is that "The Editors" placed this complaint on the cover, signaling their collective disapproval of Rubio and his little project. Thus far, the conservative senator has had the cautious support of right-wing press, from populist Limbaugh and up the respectability ladder, but the National Review is now off the bandwagon, making it easier for other right-wing media figures and outlets to join them. And if the conservative press isn't selling the proposal to the angry old whites in their audiences, House Republicans are going to find it hard to justify supporting immigration reform.

Even worse, for the bill, is the new study put out by the Heritage Foundation -- long the most influential right-wing think tank -- saying immigration reform will cost America eleventy-zillion dollars. Or $6.3 trillion, which is basically the same. Worse, it's $6.3 trillion in new spending on entitlements and welfare.

This is a report clearly designed to be an oft-repeated talking point -- $6.3 trillion! -- and conservatives in favor of reform, from Paul Ryan to Haley Barbour, immediately tried to discredit it. The study, critics say, makes the egregious mistake of calculating deficit impact by subtracting outlays from tax revenue, which conservatives don't accept as a legitimate way of "scoring" policies for deficit reduction, because it leads to the conclusion that deficits can be reduced with tax hikes. Conservatives prefer something called "dynamic scoring," where you say that because tax cuts lead to economic growth, they will always reduce the deficit. In this scenario immigrants are like tax cuts.

Obviously, because the study was designed to create a huge scary number, it has some methodological flaws beyond ignoring the (generally accepted) claim that immigration increases economic growth. Dylan Matthews did a pretty thorough examination of the assumptions underlying the way Heritage calculated the budget impact of human beings who live here but were born in a different place. Surprise: While the study isn't egregiously, ridiculously dishonest, it is still designed to make immigrants seem like leeches. The authors underestimate the amount current undocumented immigrants pay in FICA taxes. They claim that for some reason each immigrant household makes parks $313 more expensive to maintain.

The whole thing is full of similarly strange assumptions: "For one thing, Rector and Richwine assume no income growth for affected immigrants." Haha yes, that is quite a thing. If undocumented immigrants are made legal residents and then none of them ever advance beyond poverty, they very well could end up a net "drain" on government coffers! Also: "If one assumes that under current law, most unlawful immigrants will return to their country of origin around age 55, the lifetime fiscal costs of unlawful immigrants under current law are comparatively low: only around $1 trillion." Yes, let's assume that, it makes sense to me. "I gave this America thing a shot and it didn't work out, back to Mexico for me," the 54-year-old 20-year American resident immigrant says, to his American family.

That is the sort of nitpicking, though, that Heritage Foundation studies are designed to withstand. (Because it comes from center-left wonky bloggers that conservatives do not pay attention to.) It was already a long shot that a mostly good Senate bill could go anywhere in our increasingly Thunderdome-y House of Representatives, where no one trusts anyone in leadership and everyone hates the notion of passing anything Obama might sign. Now right-wingers in Congress have so many more arguments for why they refuse to support "amnesty." Even pro-immigration reform figures like Bill Kristol are preparing for strategic, ass-covering withdrawal, saying the House should move first on reform (which would be effectively impossible, have you seen the House?). Kristol says: "to embrace this 'House first' approach does mean accepting, as a fallback, that the status quo is preferable to the Gang of Eight legislation. For what it's worth, I'm increasingly coming to believe that's the case."

And to think, it was just a few weeks ago the existence of a Senate ganging had everyone so optimistic that we were seeing Washington at its best!

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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