Hardball with Chris Matthews, 5/6/13, 5:17 PM ET

The political fight over the cost of immigration reform

Chris Matthews talks with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, and Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown about the political debate over immigration reform.

Heritage Foundation: Immigration plan will cost $6.3 trillion. Legit?

Updated

As Congress tries to hammer out a deal on immigration reform, the Heritage Foundation is out with a new report claiming the bipartisan plan would cost a jaw-dropping $6.3 trillion.

The conservative group says the costs come from more than $9 trillion in government benefits to newly legalized immigrants over the course of their lives. The study concludes it will be counterbalanced ever-so-slightly by the $3 trillion those immigrants would pay in taxes.

“We need an immigration process that attracts workers that our economy needs and encourages patriotic assimilation to unite new immigrants with America’s vibrant civil society,” said Heritage Foundation President Jim De Mint—the former senator—said on Monday.

“But let’s be clear. Amnesty for those who are here unlawfully is not necessarily to capture those benefits,” he added.

Critics are casting doubt on the $6.3 trillion figure, which is over a 50-year period. The bulk of the costs from entitlements and social security programs are likely decades away, as the average age of undocumented workers in the U.S. is 34-years-old. Skeptics also argue the study doesn’t account for the potential economic benefits immigration reform could have, like increased productivity from workers.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the president of the America Action Forum and critic of the study, told Hardball’s Chris Matthews that the study does not take into account the economic impact and upward mobility of undocumented immigrants. .

“The notion is show how there are 12 million Americans who will be transported 50 years into the future and in the process be legalized and collect nothing in in benefits. That’s not what the law says,” he said.

“The law says, let’s divide them into those who are felons and not. So, the felons are out. Let’s keep track of those who work for 10 straight years and have above 125% of the poverty line. So  a lot of those other people are out. The rest are going to work and pay taxes, collect some benefits. But the study assumes everyone’s in, everyone’s there forever and they’re condemned to their current status,” added Holtz-Eakin, a conservative analyst.

The legislation, which was unveiled last month by the so-called bipartisan “Gang of 8” senators, would create a minimum 13-year path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally before 2012—paired with approximately $2,000 in fines and hundreds more in fees.

Undocumented immigrants would remain in a provisional status for a decade (being able to work legally but prohibited from receiving federal benefits, including healthcare). After the 10 years, they could get a green card, but only if the Homeland Security Department “substantially” improves border security. Then, after three years, those immigrants could petition for citizenship.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, part of the bipartisan coalition, has admitted he doesn’t think there will be enough votes in the GOP-controlled House to get the legislation passed.

President Obama has praised the Senate bill, although he says it’s stricter than what he would have proposed. The commander in chief, for example, has not supported making citizenship contingent on border security.

“The bill that they produced is not the bill that I would have written, there are elements of it that I would change, but I do think it meets the basic criteria that I laid out from the start,” he said at a press conference on April 31. That criteria includes creating a pathway to citizenship, beefing up border security and cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers.

Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico told Matthews that proponents of the legislation may be able to benefit from the Heritage Foundation report because “there is a clear divide within the Republican party on the merits of this one study,” pointing to lawmakers like Wisconsin GOP  Rep. Paul Ryan, a fiscal hawk, who has dismissed the findings. “People [are] discrediting it and have been discrediting it for weeks leading up to the release today,” said Budoff Brown.

Heritage Foundation: Immigration plan will cost $6.3 trillion. Legit?

Updated