Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and president of the conservative American Action Forum, summed up the Heritage view of undocumented immigrants this way: "There is no American dream. They start in poverty. They end in poverty. Their kids are in poverty."
While economists may argue over the numbers, the basic conceit of the report isn't wrong. People with low levels of education tend to use more government services, and roughly half of undocumented immigrants who are the head of their household have less than a high school degree, as Heritage points out.
However, the Heritage report downplays the broader positive impact that would come with legalizing undocumented workers. Their wages would go up and so would the GDP.
The decision to ignore those benefits gives the impression that Heritage was looking to make an argument against immigration reform, not provide a realistic figure on its economic impact, according to UCLA professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda. He authored the Cato report on immigration reform, as well as a similar report for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
"More and more of these so-called think tanks very much have a political agenda, surprise, surprise," he said. "And they'll cook the numbers to meet their political agendas."