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Q: How Much Taxpayer Money Will GOP Waste to Fire up an Anti-Immigrant Base?

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A: Billions upon billions, if some Republicans get their way.

Fortunately, they didn't get their way on the Census yesterday.

The Vitter-Bennett census amendment to the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill became a moot point yesterday afternoon when the Senate ended debate on the bill in a nail-biting procedural vote of 60 to 39, which comes as a relief to advocates who worked non-stop, through hubs like DontWreckTheCensus.org, to help sink the unconstitutional, impractical, and expensive measure.

Senators Vitter (R-LA) and Bennett (R-UT) were adamant that the 2010 Census ask about the citizenship and immigration status of respondents, a change which would have cost the government millions of dollars. All Republican Senators voted to keep debate going, save Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who was absent for the vote.

If the latest antics of Senators Vitter and Bennett are any indication, no cost is too high when it comes to stoking the immigration issue for an unquenchable hard-line base.  Their threat to derail our nation’s decennial census had been panned by nearly every census expert and would have cost billions of taxpayer dollars.  Senate Democrats deserve credit for standing up to the extreme wing of the Republican party that continues to bring up immigration as a wedge strategy in debate after debate-- like a bad broken record. 

As Christina Bellantoni reports in a recent Talking Points Memo post, some Democratic legislators fought the nonsense hard:

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) sent a terse letter to Vitter (R-LA) outlining the problems she sees in his amendment, including its potential taxpayer cost of $1 billion to reprint Census forms already ready for use.

Sen. Landrieu was right, the price tag-- and the stakes-- were high.  In a letter signed by 5 former Census directors (both Republicans and Democrats), the costs were estimated to be “incalculable”: 

Such a massive revision could not be accomplished in time to conduct the census on its currently envisioned schedule, thus placing all previous decisions and preparations in jeopardy, since they are tied to an April 1, 2010 Census Day. The resulting cost to the taxpayer is still hard to overestimate, since the Census Bureau has already spent at least $7 billion to prepare for the decennial enumeration. But Vitter was unfazed by charges that deemed his proposal fiscally irresponsible.

Vitter maintained that forcing taxpayers to pay a few billion dollars more on the Census was fine because, well, it already costs too much.  You just can't make this stuff up.

In Vitter’s words:

"Cost too much? So far, this census has been projected by GAO to cost upward of $13 billion and has been deemed by them as the most expensive census in history, even after adjusting for inflation. The bottom line is that average Americans think it's outrageous for illegals to be counted in congressional reapportionment."

But let's not give these guys too much credit. Vitter and Bennett are simply following a well-worn, hard-line Republican strategy of championing nonsense legislation that is completely unworkable and wildly expensive.  They're weren't scoring many originality points here.

Reviewing the immigration hard-liners greatest hits-- it's shocking to see just how much they've been willing to waste:

  • $154 billion.  Estimate of using workplace raids to apprehend all undocumented immigrants – based on the costs of the horrific Agriprocessors meatpacking plant raid in Postville, Iowa (not to mention the costs of trials, deportations, etc.). A recent economic analysis by the Immigration Policy Center cites a Center for American Progress study that pegs the cost of deporting all undocumented immigrants currently in the US at $230 billion.
  • $1.8 billion.  Congressional Budget Office estimate of how much the now-infamous H.R. 4437 of 2006 would have cost taxpayers.  This is the legislation that would have made it a felony for churches to provide assistance to undocumented people, among other things.  Incidentally, it also spurred the historic million-person immigrant rights marches across the country.
  • $6.5 billion.  Cost of Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) amendment this year to expand the border wall with Mexico, despite serious questions regarding its effectiveness.  The amendment, which passed the Senate, was dropped from the final bill.

Rather than working toward real, comprehensive solutions on immigration, the hard-line leaders of the Republican party in Congress can’t seem to quench their thirst for "get-tough" legislation that would cost taxpayers billions.

So let’s add one more bullet to the list of reasons that Congress and the President should act immediately on comprehensive immigration reform: taxpayer protection.