May 23, 2013

A few weeks ago, the conservative Heritage Foundation warned that immigration reform could cost the United States trillions of dollars in extra costs and lost revenue. Their price tag of $6.3 trillion was an astounding projection, and was immediately challenged by politicians and analysts from across the political spectrum, a clear sign of how much support immigration reform carries among political elites.

If reform advocates had a major complaint with the Heritage study, it was that it ignored any potential economic benefits from shifting immigration laws. Republicans have long been fans of a practice called “dynamic scoring,” which does exactly that — estimate the economic benefits of a policy, and then factor them into cost projections. It’s how House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, for example, could claim that his policies would create jobs and revive the economy. He simply estimated that large economic benefits would flow from his plan.

Today, The Hill reports that the Senate “Gang of Eight” plans to do the same with their immigration bill, and take a direct shot at the conservative argument that new immigrants — and new citizens — would cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. The Congressional Budget Office, writes The Hill, “has announced it will depart from its usual practice and apply a dynamic scoring model to estimate the costs of the law over the next decade. This is good news for the Gang of Eight because the model will factor in the expected economic boost provided by millions of new legal workers. Projecting higher tax revenue from increased economic activity will produce a more favorable budgetary outlook.”

Indeed, the “Gang of Eight” expects that when all is said and done, dynamic scoring will show an immigration bill that adds nothing to the deficit over the next ten years, even as it devotes billions to implementation, from border security measures to creating new systems to track those coming in and out of the country.

It should be said that while this will challenge conservative estimates, it won’t do much — if anything — to persuade conservative opponents. For many (but not all) opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, the problem isn’t cost or scope as much as it is conception — for reasons economic, cultural and political, they are opposed to mass, low-skill immigration. Some conservative Republicans, for example, believe that it will lead to a huge influx of new Democratic voters, while others believe that it will depress the wages of native born workers. Regardless, despite its place in the spotlight, budgetary cost isn’t the issue.

A good analogy is with the Affordable Care Act. During the long fight over the bill, Republican opponents explained their opposition in many different ways. There were either too many moving parts, or the process was going too fast, or the bill was too big. And at various points, Democrats tried to address these concerns, with little luck. The truth of the situation was that Republicans opposed the entire project of health care reform, and complaints about process were just a politically expedient excuse.

In the same way, arguments over the cost of immigration reform obscure the real issue, which is that a large chunk of the Republican Party doesn’t believe in facilitating immigration to the United States. It’s that simple.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.