Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

Reading through the various news reports about the introduction of the RAISE Act yesterday, I was struck by the headlines: "Trump, GOP senators introduce bill to slash legal immigration levels"; "Trump backs 'merit-based' visa bill that could halve legal immigration"; "Trump Supports Plan to Cut Legal Immigration by Half" etc.

Four years ago, President Obama backed a bill that would have doubled immigration (increase it by 100%!) and you'd be hard pressed to find any headlines from that time even mentioning the changes to the green card system. Nor would you find the increases reported within the stories. I tried to count them one time and I believe I found three stories that reported what would have been the largest immigration increase in United States history -- and only one of them was written before the Senate voted on the bill. 

That was then. Now that there is talk of moderating immigration, there is a lot of media interest in proposals to change the legal system. And although (or, perhaps, because) there have been one or two examples of the media clearly not having thought through the basic questions surrounding green card policy, much of the reporting on the RAISE Act thus far has been fairly straightforward and down the middle. 

But the early returns have produced some common errors and mischaracterizations that are worth watching out for and correcting/clarifying for your fellow readers when you find them.

Many of them can be found in an Associated Press story from yesterday, which is unfortunate because 1) the reporters are knowledgeable professionals and 2) AP stories are widely read. 

Here are the problems:

1.) The story ignores negative impacts that economists agree on:

"But {Trump} has also vowed to make changes to the legal immigration system, arguing that immigrants compete with Americans for much-needed jobs and drive wages down.

"Most economists dispute the president's argument, noting that immigration in recent decades doesn't appear to have meaningfully hurt wages in the long run."

"in the long run" is a big caveat because the economic models used by the National Academy of Sciences to measure wage impact are built to assume a long-run effect of zero. But economists who look at the short-run impact find negative consequences there. Indeed, the NAS found that the current immigration system redistributes nearly half a trillon dollars in wages from American workers who compete with new immigrants to owners of capital. Economists who work for big businesses understandably prefer to focus on the meaningless long-run estimates. But there is no reason for the media not to report the short-run impact.

2.) The story sets up a false apples ("immigrants compete with Americans for much needed jobs and wages") to oranges ("immigration is also associated with faster growth because the country is adding workers") debate. Both things can be true and indeed are. The question then becomes: is it more important to expand immigration to grow the economic pie, or to moderate immigration to increase the size of the individual slices?

3.) In attempting to correct a false characterization, the story misses an important fact:

"But the president is mischaracterizing many of the immigrants coming to the United States as low-skilled and dependent on government aid.

"The Pew Research Center said in 2015 that 41 percent of immigrants who had arrived in the past five years held a college degree, much higher than the 30 percent of non-immigrants in the United States. A stunning 18 percent held an advanced degree, also much higher than the U.S. average."

Immigrants have been more likely to have advanced degrees than U.S.-born Americans dating back to the 1970. This isn't new or relevant to the RAISE Act because has tripled since the 1970s so there has been a big increase in all immigration - highly educated and less educated. Another way of saying "41 percent of immigrants who had arrived in the past five years held a college degree" is "the U.S. gave permanent green card work permits to 3 million immigrants without a college degree in the last 5 years."  The Associated Press implies that the current immigration system isn't bringing in millions of less-educated workers when the opposite is true. 

This is important because the National Academy of Sciences found that while many Americans benefit from the current record levels of immigration, the workers whose wages are the worst-effected are the less-educated:

"Some notable patterns emerge…Native dropouts tend to be more negatively affected than better-educated natives (as indicated by comparing results for dropouts with the overall results for all workers or all men or women). The results in the table also suggest that this negative effect may be compounded for native minorities. Altonji and Card (1991) found more-negative results for low-education blacks than low-education whites…Cortés examined a number of groups and found the largest negative effects for Hispanic dropouts with poor English, as well as larger negative effects for Hispanic dropouts than for all dropouts. This could be because native dropout minorities are the closest native substitutes for immigrants."

4.) As above, the story chooses an arbitrary time frame to make this more dramatic claim:

"The bill would also aim to slash the number of refugees in half."

The current policy - set by the Trump administration - is to admit 50,000 refugees per year. The RAISE Act would set it at...50,000 a year. The average during the George W. Bush administration was also 50,000 a year. In fact the average over the past 13 years is 50,000 a year. President Clinton's bi-partisan commission on immigration reform recommended refugee admissions of 50,000 a year. It is true that during his last year in office, President Obama set refugee admissions at over 100,000 per year -- it just isn't clear why the Associated Press chose that as their point of reference.

5.) The story does not correct blatant errors of fact made by others (Part I). The reporters write:

"The rollout included a combative press briefing led by Trump policy aide Stephen Miller, who clashed with the media over the plan and accused one reporter of being "cosmopolitan" when he suggested it would only bring in English-speaking people from Britain and Australia."

Whether or not the reporter's suggestion revealed a cosmopolitan bias or not is in the eye of the beholder, but there is no question that Jim Acosta's suggestion that the bill "would only bring in English-speaking people from Britain and Australia" is verifiably false. Now there is a case to be made for simply quoting people and letting readers make up their minds about the veracity of those quotes, but the story has already spent two paragraphs attempting to correct a "mischaracterization" by Trump. Why not correct the mischaracterization of the RAISE Act?

6.) The story does not correct blatant errors of fact made by others (Part II). The reporters write:

"Some immigrant advocates have criticized the proposal, saying that slashing legal immigration would hurt industries like agriculture..."

This is a highly-reported criticism of the RAISE Act and opponents will continue to use it until the media calls them out. There is an unlimited visa program for agricultural workers; the RAISE Act does not touch that visa program. Moreover, crop labor makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. workforce, and most foreign ag workers are working on H-2a visas or illegally. There is no mathematical evidence to support the claim that extended-family Chain Migration is propping up the agricultural industry.

Credit where credit is due: The Associated Press story does an excellent job of explaining the changes to the Chain Migration categories:

"The bill would also eliminate the preference for U.S. residents' extended and adult family members, while maintaining priority for their spouses and minor children."

A few reports have botched their explanation of the changes to the preference categories but the AP gets it right. I would have liked them to acknowledge that these changes were also a key recommendation of President Clinton's bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform twenty years ago -- but that is probably too much to ask.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Chain Migration
visa lottery

Updated: Fri, Aug 18th 2017 @ 9:10am EDT

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