In 2007, The Heritage Foundation estimated that the fiscal cost of amnesty to the U.S. taxpayer would total trillions over the lifetimes of the immigrants who are legalized. We are updating that study and will release new numbers soon.
The new analysis assumes that almost all unlawful immigrants living in the U.S. in 2011 would be eligible for the amnesty. In attempting to argue that the cost is lower, supporters of amnesty point to provisions in S. 744, the “Gang of Eight” bill, that would deny continued provisional status and legal permanent residency to individuals who are below the poverty line. Since immigrants in poverty are excluded from the amnesty, the argument goes, then the cost to taxpayers would be much lower.
The short response is that the exclusion of people below the poverty line is a legal mirage that will never happen. A loophole in the law makes the poverty provision meaningless. If anything, we are underestimating the number of people benefiting from amnesty, since S. 744 allows certain people living abroad to come to the U.S. under the same provisional status.
For more detail, let’s look at the bill itself. Nearly all unlawful immigrants would be eligible for “registered provisional immigrant” (RPI) status, which is the core of the amnesty. RPI status must be renewed every six years, and the bill seems to limit eligibility to individuals who are above the federal poverty line. When individuals with RPI status later apply to become legal permanent residents (“green card” status), the required threshold becomes 125 percent of the poverty line.
However, there is a major loophole. To get around proving they are above a poverty threshold, applicants can simply show that they are not “likely to become a public charge.” Inadmissibility of immigrants likely to become a public charge is a longstanding feature of American immigration law, but it is virtually never enforced.
In fact, even if the federal government suddenly became serious about enforcing the provision, it is difficult to see how an immigrant with RPI status could ever be labeled a public charge. The regulatory guidelines define a potential public charge as someone who is receiving federal cash assistance or is institutionalized at government expense. By definition, someone with RPI status cannot receive federal benefits in the first place. Virtually no one in RPI status will be labeled a public charge—hence, virtually no one will be excluded on account of being poor.
If anything, The Heritage Foundation analysis underestimates the number of people receiving amnesty by focusing only on the unlawful immigrants who were here in 2011. S. 744 provides for dependents of amnesty recipients to come to the U.S. under the same RPI status. Even unlawful immigrants who were once deported can return to the U.S. and receive amnesty, provided they have a close family member who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder.