By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As a bipartisan Senate group worked over the past few months to assemble broad legislation to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, conservative critics of the effort kept a fairly low profile. That's about to change.
Critics of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" immigration bill are gearing up for an intense fight to defeat the bill and they plan to put the economy at the center of their strategy.
The debate on Capitol Hill over the bill will kick off Friday with a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Conservatives held back until details of the legislation emerged and now intend to stir grassroots opposition through social media and talk radio among other lobbying efforts.
"Everything in this bill says we have a labor shortage. It's proposing adding millions more foreign workers over the next decade alone," said Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, a group that favors low immigration levels. "We have 20 million Americans who can't find a full-time job. It's as if the Gang of Eight lives in alternate universe."
Beck took aim at a provision that would allow many of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants to obtain provisional visas, giving them the right to live and work in the country for 13 years before becoming eligible for citizenship.
Many foes of the immigration bill view their most effective line of attack to be warnings about the costs of the legislation and its impact on an already weak U.S. labor market.
Some activists and lawmakers have derided the bill as an amnesty for lawbreakers but by emphasizing the law enforcement argument, conservatives risk fueling a perception that they are anti-immigrant.
Republicans are also mindful of their party's low standing with Hispanic Americans and wary of stirring backlash with these voters.
The bill would establish new guest worker programs of low-skilled workers in farming, construction and other trades and increase the number of skilled workers who can obtain visas.
Former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, attacked the bill as "amnesty," adding that it would incur "significant costs" to taxpayers.
"At a time of trillion-dollar deficits and $17 trillion in debt, the cost of implementing amnesty and the strain it will add to already fragile entitlement and welfare programs should be of serious concern for everyone," DeMint said in a blog post on the Heritage Foundation web site.
The four Democrats and four Republicans who sponsored the bill formally began their effort to sell it at a news conference Thursday.
Under the Gang of Eight proposal, those who obtain provisional visas would not be eligible for most federal benefit programs, including welfare and assistance purchasing health insurance under the 2010 health reform law, until they receive green cards or citizenship.
But those given provisional legal status would eventually be allowed to draw benefits once they receive green cards or citizenship.
FISCAL IMPACT DEBATED
Heritage, which helped defeat the last major effort at comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, plans to issue a study in coming weeks analyzing the fiscal impact of the Gang of Eight's proposal in a report likely to become fodder for the debate on Capitol Hill.
Within conservative circles, the politics of the immigration issue are complicated. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, is one of the lead sponsors of the Senate immigration bill.
Rubio, a Florida Republican and potential presidential candidate in 2016, and some other Republicans are embracing immigration reform in the aftermath of a presidential election in which Republican Mitt Romney lost to Democratic President Barack Obama, hurt in part by Obama's huge advantage with Latino voters.
Romney's stance on immigration during the campaign, including suggesting that illegal immigrants "self-deport," helped to cost him votes with Hispanic Americans.
Some prominent economic conservatives, including anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, support the immigration reform bill, arguing that it will boost growth by making labor markets more fluid and giving technology companies and other business greater leeway to hire the skilled workers they need to stay competitive.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former aide to President George W. Bush who also advised McCain's failed 2008 presidential bid, has estimated that immigration reform could boost U.S. gross domestic product by a nearly a percentage point.
Holtz-Eakin, head of the American Action Forum, a conservative policy institute, also said overhauling immigration laws could reduce cumulative federal budget deficits by $2.5 billion when taking into account the fact that faster economic growth leads to higher tax collections and reduces costs for unemployment insurance and other safety net programs.
But there are plenty of Republican skeptics of the immigration bill on Capitol Hill and it faces a particularly tough road in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
In the Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats, Republican Jeff Sessions is expected to lead the effort to defeat the immigration bill. Like DeMint, Sessions said the bill would put a huge strain on federal entitlement programs. He also warned it would exacerbate a scarcity of jobs for Americans already grappling with a 7.6 percent unemployment rate.
"This proposal would economically devastate low-income American citizens and current legal immigrants," the Alabama Republican senator said. "It will pull down their wages and reduce their job prospects. Including those legalized, this bill would result in at least 30 million new foreign workers over a 10-year period — more than the entire population of the state of Texas."
(Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)