Republicans estimate immigration bill could cost taxpayers billions, Rubio challenges claim

Senate Republican staffers estimated Thursday that the annual cost to taxpayers of legalizing illegal immigrants could be in the billions, if they use their status to apply for federal benefits from Medicaid and ObamaCare. The claim, though, was challenged by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a key Republican engaged in immigration bill talks.

Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee -- responding to an emerging immigration proposal that includes a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants -- had estimated that the cost could total up to $40 billion in 2022, "just for Medicaid and ObamaCare."

"The net costs would be enormous and only increase once citizenship is granted," the office of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, top Republican on the committee, said in a statement Thursday. The estimates were crunched by budget committee Republican staff.

Payments from Medicaid and subsidies from the federal health care law represent just a fraction of federal government benefits that a green-card holder or U.S. citizen can apply for.

But Rubio spokesman Alex Conant disputed the numbers, saying in a statement late Thursday that it's simply too early to provide cost estimates.

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"Since we don't yet have a legislative proposal, it's not possible to come up with anything resembling an accurate calculation about the potential fiscal impact of bipartisan immigration reform," he said.

Conant added that Rubio is concerned about the "potential fiscal impact" of the bill and will request an "in-depth" budget analysis.

"Senator Rubio has been clear that he will only support legislation that prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving any federal benefits, and in our negotiations, the Democrats have gone along with that demand -- even agreeing to a partial repeal of ObamaCare to bar undocumented immigrants benefits. In the long-term, there's no question that modernizing our broken legal immigration will be very good for our nation's economy," he said.

Rubio, R-Fla., a key member of the "Gang of Eight" which is drafting a proposal, has stressed that he would ensure there are limits on benefits being applied to these individuals. He told Fox News in January that the first phase for them would be to get a nonimmigrant visa -- not a green card -- "and you don't qualify for any federal benefits under that. You don't get federal benefits."

Their eligibility, though, would change once they get a green card.

Sessions' office voiced concern Thursday that a law -- which dates back a century and was renewed by Congress in 1996 -- meant to prevent immigrants from taking root in the U.S. only to live on the government dole would not be applied here.

That law is supposed to turn away those immigrants who are likely to become a "public charge." But the statement Thursday claimed nothing in the current plan would apply to those already in the country before they are granted legal status.

Further, numbers recently provided by the Department of Homeland Security indicated the "public charge" standard is not aggressively enforced. The department found just one case for most of fiscal 2012 where the claim was leveled at an immigrant. "However, the charge was later withdrawn," DHS reported.

The department blamed "data entry quality" for not having complete information on how many immigrants became public charges.

Despite widespread reports and speculation about the immigration bill being drafted, a bill has not yet been introduced. Senators are working out the details in hopes of bringing it before Congress in the coming weeks.