Jim DeMint On Immigration Overhaul's 'Staggering' Costs

The research by the Heritage Foundation on the cost-benefit analysis of immigration is being criticized by both conservatives and liberals for not being properly calculated, nor fully accounting for the economic benefit of overhauling the immigration system. Steve Inskeep discusses the study with the president of the foundation, former Republican Senator Jim DeMint.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of the Heritage Foundation is former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. He was among the most influential Republicans as a senator, and now leads one of the most prominent conservative think tanks. And he's on the line.

Senator, welcome to the program.

JIM DEMINT: Well, good morning David and Steve. It's great to be with you.

INSKEEP: Glad you are here. Let's jump right in with that remark by Douglas Holtz-Eakin there at the end of David Welna's report. He's a very respected adviser to a Republican president and he says you're ignoring the dynamic effects of immigrants; they're creative, they can boost the economy, they can make lots of money. Is he right that you ignored that?

DEMINT: No, we didn't ignore any part of this. And I think anyone who reads the study will just sit back and just be stunned by the staggering cost. And the analysis is really hard to get out from under. Unfortunately the Congressional Budget Office is really a puppet of how Congress writes bills. And the old trick on the Hill is to put the revenue in the first 10 years and push as many expenses out past 10 years. Like with Obamacare, the Congressional Budget Office said it won't cost anything.

INSKEEP: Is this why you're trying to do a 50-year projection? That does seem like an awfully long time to try to predict how much anything is going to cost.

DEMINT: Well, you can go out 20 years, but even in the 10-year window, there is a huge deficit in the amount that unlawful immigrants pay into taxes versus how much they get out in benefits. But what they've done with this bill is they've promised us - and keep in mind Congress rarely keeps its promises. They've promised that these unlawful immigrants, while they have legal status in the beginning, will not be able to get welfare, Social Security, Medicare.

That pushes some of the cost past the 10-year window. But once you get past 10 to 14 years, the deficit is extraordinary. And the reason you have to go out a number of years, the average unlawful immigrant is 34 years old so their life expectancy is 84. So we're looking at the cost, during their lifetime, particularly with Social Security and Medicare, which is already broke. Now keep in mind - now we're not saying we don't need immigration reform, we desperately need it because our immigration system has over the last several decades began to take people with much less skill and education.

Back 30, 40 years ago, immigrants who came to America had the same education and skill level as American citizens, sometimes even more. We've changed that so the whole formula for assumptions is different. And they're saying now that people with 10th grade educations can move upward. If they can, we need to do that for our own citizens. We've got millions of Americans without high school diplomas who are languishing without any opportunity.

INSKEEP: Senator?

DEMINT: Yes.

INSKEEP: So let me just ask you, though, because you're focusing on the idea that if these folks become citizens that they basically will run a deficit, or the government will run a deficit supporting them. Isn't that already true of citizens, though? It's true of people who voted for you in South Carolina. This is something that's happening in the country. There is a deficit and isn't that a separate issue than whether individuals are citizens or not?

DEMINT: It can't be a separate issue because our country has moved so much towards a welfare state and the redistribution of income has become so great that now when we look at immigration reform, it's very important that we bring people to the country that are going to help create jobs and opportunities for those that are here. The whole point of immigration should be to increase the incomes and improve the quality of life for Americans.

So as we look at this, we can't look at immigration reform as a foreign aid program. We've got a lot of Americans, particularly lawful immigrants, who've come here looking for opportunity. What we're saying in this study is the costs are very real and we do have a situation in the country today where because of our failing education system and because of the huge growth in government benefits that we've got a lot of folks who are creating a deficit as far as the amount they take from government and what pay in.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Senator, are you surprised that so many traditionally Republican groups and Republican leaders - Haley Barbour, Douglas Holtz-Eakin - the Cato Institute, have criticized your report?

DEMINT: No, I'm not because first of all, they have not done a report and they're using assumptions the same as ones I was using until a few years ago that are 30 years old, about our economic models and about our immigration system. Cato has not done a study and neither has Haley Barbour. Heritage is the only who is willing to look at the real cost. And the person who did this, Robert Rector, has been proved right for decades.

He did the numbers on welfare reform and he's studied the whole cultural aspects of America for years. So...

INSKEEP: Got to stop you there, Senator.

DEMINT: OK, that's good.

INSKEEP: Senator Jim DeMint, former senator of South Carolina, now president of the Heritage Foundation.

DEMINT: Thank you both.

INSKEEP: Thank you. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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