Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: Heritage Foundation’s immigration report a case study in gaffes

The biggest mistakes in politics are often unforced errors that reinforce an opponent’s stereotypes.

By that standard, the Heritage Foundation’s immigration report last week was a case study in the worst of political gaffes.

The conservative think tank’s May 6 report, “The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer,” was designed to arm immigration hardliners with economic data to oppose the pathway to citizenship proposed by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight.”.

Instead, it turned into a public-relations fiasco about eugenics and prejudice.

By week’s end, the study’s co-author, Jason Richwine, had resigned in disgrace. Heritage lost face. Its new leader, the once-outspoken South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, was in hiding.

And DeMint’s protégé, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, was put in an awkward spot.

Rubio, who helped write the immigration bill that Heritage bashed, isn’t saying much about the fact that his mentor’s think tank produced a study co-authored by a man who wrote this in his Harvard thesis in 2009:

“The totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ. . . . No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”

Rubio is a first-generation descendant of Hispanic immigrants. His meteoric political rise and eloquence help refute the suggestion that Hispanics just aren’t as smart as Anglos. Same with that other minority son of an immigrant: President Barack Obama.

The Heritage study contains none of the inflammatory ideas Richwine has espoused, and Heritage stands by the report and its methodology.

In short, the Heritage report estimates that U.S. taxpayers could have to pay as much as $6.3 trillion for extra social services over 50 years if the nation’s roughly 11 million illegal immigrants eventually became citizens.

The report’s analysis is underpinned by the notion that immigrants, specifically those now in the country illegally, can’t or won’t quickly rise up the economic ladder.

“Their argument is based on a single premise, which I think is flawed,” Rubio told reporters Tuesday, about 24 hours after the study was released. “That is, these people are disproportionately poor because they have no education and they will be poor for the rest of their lives in the U.S.

“Quite frankly, that’s not the immigration experience in the U.S.,” Rubio said. “That’s certainly not my family’s experience in the U.S. The folks described in that report are my family. My mother and dad didn’t graduate high school and I would not say they were a burden on the United States.”

The study’s main author, Robert Rector, said on The Kudlow Report that the data show “amnesty” is a financial loser, whether it’s concerning illegal immigrants or their kids.

“Not only do these kids not pay back the $6.3 trillion deficit that their parents left. They themselves will also be in deficit. They will receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes,” he said.

“They are a lot better than their parents,” Rector said. “But they’re starting off at a very low level. So you can’t expect them to make up these costs.”

With such a big number projected out over such a long period, Rector and Richwine’s report was ripe for criticism. It piggybacked off a 2007 Heritage report estimating that another “amnesty” bill would cost taxpayers $2.7 trillion. That report, oft-cited by Republicans, helped kill immigration reform then.

The two Heritage Foundation reports, and the fate of bills like the DREAM Act, expose a fallacy espoused by Rubio, who has suggested that immigration reform faces as much of a threat from the political left as from the right.

It’s true that some liberals and Democrats want to scuttle immigration reform for political gain. Many would prefer the current situation, in which Hispanic voters continue to tilt Democrat and blame Republicans for blocking immigration reform.

But in light of the Heritage’s public-relations fiasco, Democrats need to do very little as conservatives blow themselves up when it comes to Hispanic voters.

Not all conservatives or immigration hardliners share the views espoused by Richwine. Many bristle at liberals itching to call them all racists and nativist know-nothings.

The conservative American Action Network, a backer of immigration reform, was ready to combat Heritage even before the revelation of Richwine’s views became public. The network sponsored Web ads bashing the “flawed” and “misleading study” whenever someone in Washington, D.C., Googled “Heritage Foundation Report” or some variant.

Heritage critics also pointed out that it only studied the cost of the pathway to citizenship in its analysis of the Senate bill, not the benefits of attracting more high-skilled and highly educated immigrants who would pay more into the system than take out.

Little of it mattered, in a political sense, by Wednesday.

That’s when the Washington Post dug up Richwine’s thesis. From that point on, critics needed only to talk about prejudice to undermine the report.

Soon, Richwine’s comments like these at a 2008 immigration forum came to light:

“You have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks,” he said. “These are real differences, and they’re not going to go away tomorrow, and for that reason we have to address them in our immigration discussions and our debates.”

If opponents of immigration reform want to win the debate, they should ignore Richwine’s advice.

But should we all ignore the entire Heritage Foundation study?