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Sunday, May 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Heritage Foundation math on immigration disputed

Knight Ridder Newspapers

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 immigration.

A study by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center, said the Senate's expansive immigration measure would allow a staggering 103 million immigrants to enter the United States over 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 the nation's population and bust the federal budget by taxing the welfare system.

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

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

To reach 103 million, Heritage author Robert 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 think tank.

"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 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.

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

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh seemed to catch Cheney off guard earlier this month 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."

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