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Heritage scholar strikes back

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Robert Rector is the senior research fellow in domestic policy for The Heritage Foundation and co-author of a Heritage study released Monday on the Senate immigration reform bill. He spoke to the Trib regarding the report, which estimates the bill would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion in new entitlements and social programs.

Q: Many people would consider $6.3 trillion a staggering sum. How did you arrive at the figure?

A: Well, we look at the cost of the illegal immigrants for the rest of their lives, because what you are doing is opening up their access to benefits for the rest of their lives — Social Security and Medicare, for example. And one way to understand this number is that there are 10 million illegal immigrants, they are going to get benefits on average for 50 years after they get amnesty and the average cost, benefits minus taxes per year, is around $12,000. That comes out to $6 trillion.

Q: But won't they also be earning more money and paying more taxes than they do now if they are legalized?

A: We do assume that. We looked at the 1986 amnesty. The evidence of that showed about a 5 percent wage increase as a result of the amnesty. We built that into the analysis. These individuals do work. They will continue to work until they are in their 60s. But it's kind of a myth that people have that if people hold jobs and work that somehow they are net tax contributors, that they are going to pay more than they take out in benefits.

Q: What's the reality?

A: A person that does not have a high school degree, they can work, they can pay taxes, but they still are going to take $3 to $4 in benefits for every dollar of taxes they pay in. They are going to do that every year of their lives. Someone else has to pay that (benefits) cost. I don't mind doing that for a U.S.-born citizen. I think we have a moral obligation. But we cannot afford to do this for 10 million people whose claim on our resources is that they broke our laws.

Q: Your study has taken a lot of heat from traditionally conservative circles. Were you expecting that?

A: Those are not what you would call traditional conservative circles. Those are all open-border advocates who really believe that people should have an unlimited right to come to the United States and become U.S. citizens. Milton Friedman, the great conservative economist, said long ago that you really can't have open borders and a welfare state. You can't allow anyone to come here and get access to all these government programs because that will bankrupt the country. The problem with these open-border advocates is that they've never been able to really adjust to that reality. They like to pretend that somehow the United States is like Dodge City in 1870 and the whole cost of government is Wyatt Earp and his deputies.

Q: What impact do you believe the report will have on the lawmakers who are considering this issue? Do you think it will help sway the argument toward defeating the bill?

A: I believe it will. I think the advocates for the bill have been saying (amnesty) doesn't cost anything, and that's really been completely untrue all along. So now they have to step forward and really confront these costs, or find a way to say there's really something wrong with the way this assessment was made. They are not going to have any luck with that latter thing.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

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