The think tank that came of age as President Reagan’s policy shop back when amnesty wasn’t a dirty word is now leading the conservative opposition against immigration reform. Heritage Action, the newly created political arm of the Heritage Foundation, has abandoned the venerable organization’s scholarly gentility to plunge into the task at hand, which is making sure the immigration bill currently before Congress fails.

“They speak to a particular constituency, and they’re good at what they do in creating angst among Republicans because they speak to the people who can primary them,” says John Feehery, a former top GOP leadership aide. “So many members are risk-averse and they don’t want a hard-right challenge.”

Heritage’s main argument against the legalization of undocumented immigrants is its cost, and the belief that immigrants would drain social-service programs without kicking in enough taxes to the Treasury because they are largely uneducated and hold low-level jobs. “The structure of our welfare and entitlement system leads to amnesty costing taxpayers a lot of money,” Dan Holler with Heritage Action told The Daily Beast just hours before the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office made public its conclusion that the Senate’s bipartisan immigration-reform bill would reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $197 billion, and by about $700 billion over the following decade.

It’s not the first time Heritage has been put on the defensive. A report the think tank released earlier this year saying reform would cost an eye-popping $6.3 trillion was widely discredited, including by conservatives, and one of the report’s co-authorsresigned amid reports that his doctoral thesis at Harvard asserted that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than whites. The report was meant to debut newly installed Heritage President Jim DeMint. Instead it exposed the long-simmering rift brewing in the GOP between pro-immigration conservatives and the newer Tea Party nativists. In broad terms, the divide is between those who accept the country as more diverse, seeing immigrants as a source of energy and economic growth, and what Feehery describes as the “nostalgia” wing of his party, “folks whose conservatism is defined by the ability to fight progress.”

Lots of conservatives have lined up on the side of immigration reform, notably anti-tax activist Grover Norquist; the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank; the Chamber of Commerce; and the American Conservative Union. That doesn’t diminish Heritage’s clout; rather, it has found its niche. “They are the tip of the spear for the Tea Party,” says Feehery. DeMint gave up his South Carolina Senate seat last year to take the helm at Heritage, and to push the think tank into a more aggressive and hard-right role. 

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