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Think tank's immigration study challenged by critics

WASHINGTON—It caught Vice President Dick Cheney off-guard, emboldened the conservative opposition, and it's become one of the most talked about "talking points" in the battle over the Senate's sweeping immigration bill.

A study by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center, said that the Senate measure would allow a staggering 103 million immigrants to enter the United States over the next 20 years. The report instantly became the weapon of choice for the bill's opponents in Washington, on talk radio and across the country.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., cited the report Tuesday when voicing opposition to the legislation, which he said would explode America's population and bust the federal budget because its increase of low-skilled, undereducated immigrants would tax the welfare system.

"As the facts become more clear, I think there's more unease," Sessions said as he sat beside Robert Rector, the author of the Heritage study. "I heard a senator tell me not long ago, `The more I learn about this bill, the worse I think it is.' And I think there's some concern growing in this regard."

But independent analysts and supporters of the immigration measure say the Heritage report's numbers don't add up.

A Congressional Budget Office study released last week estimates that the Senate bill would increase the U.S. population by 8 million residents by 2016.

To reach 103 million, Rector "assumes the maximums, pulls out all the stops for every loophole, possibility, and makes some assumptions—some unrealistic—about how many family members will be brought in," said William Frey, a demographer for the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy-research center. "It's widely unrealistic. You cannot assume the maximum numbers for some of the provisions. He (Rector) is pushing it to the extremes."

Still, the Heritage study has influenced the Senate debate. It helped persuade a large Senate majority last week to approve a proposal by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to cut the bill's number of guest-worker visas from 350,000 to 200,000. After the 80-17 vote, some senators said the reduction reflected concern that the United States can't absorb so many guest workers.

Bingaman's amendment forced Rector to lower his projection of the immigration bill's impact. He cut his forecast of how many new immigrants it would admit to this country over 20 years to 66 million.

But Rector says the Senate measure remains a bad bill. He challenged the CBO's assertions, saying the budget office underestimates the number of illegal immigrants who'd become legal and the number of dependents who'd come here once a relative becomes legal.

"The bill before the Senate today ... is the largest increase in immigration, even after the Bingaman amendment, in the history of the United States," Rector said Tuesday at a news conference. "It still, in its current form, very nearly triples the rate of legal immigration into the country, as well as giving amnesty to between seven and 10 million people."

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh seemed to catch Cheney off-guard last week when he pressed him on the Heritage report.

"I haven't seen their analysis, Rush," Cheney said. "If that's the case, I would hope that would inform the debate and that Congress will consider those kinds of impacts very carefully before they finally pass something."

President Bush calls for comprehensive immigration legislation much like the Senate bill.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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