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Is an anti-immigration think tank moving left?

Stephen Moore has spent years urging Congress to pass immigration reform. Jim DeMint is its leading opponent. What happens when these two get together?
Anti-Amnesty Groups Rally Against Immigration Reform In DC
A handful of protesters from anti-amnesty groups, demonstrate in front of the U.S. Capitol building April 10, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Conservative economist and writer Stephen Moore has spent more than a decade calling for immigration reform. Former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint has spent the same period rallying against “amnesty” at every turn. A match made in heaven!

This week, Moore announced he is joining the DeMint-helmed Heritage Foundation as its chief economist. Heritage has been one of the most prominent opponents of immigration reform, pressuring Republican lawmakers last year to oppose bipartisan legislation, but Moore says he won't shy away from addressing the issue in his new role. 

The move puts Moore and DeMint on the same team during a critical stretch for immigration reform in Congress. Moore has pledged to work with the former South Carolina lawmaker to “develop a pro-growth immigration policy.”

“I don’t want Heritage to be viewed as anti-immigration,” he said in an interview with Heritage blog The Foundry about his new position. “We all know immigration is vitally important to our economy. Our goal will be to develop an immigration policy that’s in the best interest of America, our economy, and allows the United States to get the best and brightest people to come here.”

Last May, Heritage put out a study claiming a bipartisan Senate bill offering earned legal status to undocumented immigrants would cost the government a net $6.3 trillion. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office disagreed, estimating that it would actually reduce the deficit by $900 billion over the next two decades by increasing growth.

But the debate over methodology was soon overshadowed by a Washington Post report that one of the co-authors of the Heritage study, Jason Richwine, had once argued that Hispanic immigrants are unlikely to succeed due to their low IQs. Richwine left Heritage, which disavowed his views, shortly after Yahoo’s Chris Moody revealed he had written articles for a white nationalist website.

Moore, who served as a member of the pro-reform Wall Street Journal editorial board until now, has long taken a different view. Way back in 1997, he wrote a piece for libertarian think tank Cato arguing that it was a “myth” that immigrants “impose a financial burden on taxpayers” or that they “depress wages and working conditions.” In 2004, he defended President George W. Bush from charges of “amnesty” as the 43rd president tried unsuccessfully to get immigration reform past Congress and warned ominously that the GOP risked losing Hispanic and Asian voters if they opposed him. His warnings proved correct.

While Moore has criticized the Senate’s most recent bill, he’s been publicly supportive of its broad goals, praising its guest worker provision at a pro-immigration event hosted by Bush last year. He's also tangled with Heritage directly, disputing a claim by DeMint last May that the late economist Milton Friedman was opposed to an "open borders" immigration policy. 

The question now is whether Moore can drag Heritage toward the center on immigration.

“I’ve known Stephen Moore for 20 years and during that time he’s been an unwavering supporter of generous legal immigration levels and common sense immigration reforms,” Frank Sharry, president of pro-reform America’s Voice, told msnbc. “Knowing his commitment to the issue, I predict that he will have much more impact on Heritage’s approach to immigration policy than they will have on his.” 

In an email to msnbc, Heritage vice president of communications Michael Gonzales downplayed the impact of Moore’s hiring on the think tank’s immigration policy.

“Heritage has wanted a pro-growth immigration policy for years,” Gonzales said.  

DeMint and Moore might find some common ground. Throughout his career, Moore has called on Congress to offer more legal employment opportunities for migrant workers while keeping them cut off from federal benefits. DeMint doesn’t believe it’s politically possible to prevent immigrants from eventually becoming eligible for entitlements Medicare and Social Security, but at least it’s a general point of agreement. Heritage researchers have also signaled support for a much less controversial expansion of high-skilled worker visas and some form of temporary worker program to fill lower-skilled jobs.  Perhaps Moore and DeMint will find a way to offer more detailed plans while skirting the issue of what to do with existing immigrants.