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The Heritage Foundation today released a report warning that current legislative proposals to legalize approximately 11 million estimated illegal immigrants in the U.S. would cost over $6.3 trillion in government services and benefits over the lifetime of this group.   It calculates $9.4 trillion in government expenditures versus $3.1 trillion in tax revenue.

According to Heritage, in 2010 the average illegal-immigrant household received $24,721 in government services compared to paying $10,334 in taxes.  Once legalized, costs will escalate as this group qualifies for direct entitlement programs.  Heritage estimates that the average illegal-immigrant household, under the “Gang of 8” proposal in the U.S. Senate, ultimately would generate a nearly $600,000 deficit.

This calculation is premised on the “Gang of 8” proposal that would ostensibly not extend direct benefits to legalized illegals until after a decade.  More realistically, this ostensible decade wait likely would not politically hold, amid intense political pressures to provide benefits to persons in route to becoming citizens and voters.  So by Heritage’s calculation, the ultimate cost is probably even more.

Of course, there are other groups, like Cato Institute, who dispute Heritage’s methodology and claim mass legalization would be economically beneficial, offsetting the fiscal costs.  Admittedly it’s hard to make estimates involving millions of people and trillions of dollars across decades.  But the Heritage report is comprehensive and will have an impact.

Religious groups advocating mass legalization have largely ignored the fiscal question, instead emphasizing the moral imperative of hospitality towards the “sojourner.”  Old line Protestant groups, like United Methodist agencies, are and have been for many decades completely indifferent to political and fiscal reality.  In official pronouncements, they make utopian claims divorced from the real world, not supported by their own constituency, and largely ignored by the media and policy makers.

Evangelical groups supporting mass legalization have received more public attention.  Most of them generally are not utopian and, rooted in a Christian cosmology that understands the world’s fallen nature, strive for what’s possible versus the imagined ideal.  These groups are also making reputedly biblical arguments for hospitality. But if they are to be effective, they need to address the fiscal issues more directly.

Governments are not churches.  Their chief mission is not compassion and generosity.  The state’s vocation is primarily to uphold order, sustain justice, and defend the interests of the people for whom they are responsible. 

If mass legalization potentially adds trillions of dollars in costs to already potentially unsustainable entitlement programs, responsible Christian stewardship demands concern and wariness.

The Heritage report also reminds that the immigration issue is very complex, involving a vast array of competing interests.  It’s facile to declare there’s a clear “biblical” stance on the details of U.S. immigration law.  Instead, people of faith who are called towards the issue should readily understand that their faith does not always guarantee political certainty.