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NPR’s lazy, creeping supply-and-demand denialism

author Published by Jeremy Beck

The titillating subhead on NPR’s web story promises listeners and readers an outrage:

Sessions praised immigration restrictions of the 1920s – laws that are widely regarded today as racist.

The implication is clear but reporters Mary Louise Kelly and Joel Rose (who has a history of promoting character assassinations) provide little more than murky insinuations to back up their provocative suggestion that Attorney General Sessions seeks to restore a racist quota system. Their segment will anger listeners and readers, but few will be better informed.

Immigration restrictionists and Sessions supporters will feel maligned. Expansionists and Trump administration critics will be disgusted. Everyone will get permission to confirm their own bias and put off thinking and empathy for another day.

At the segment’s core are Sessions’ comments about Congress’ 1920 immigration restrictions and their subsequent effect:

SESSIONS: When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy. And it slowed down immigration significantly. And we then assimilated through to 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America with assimilated immigrants. And it was good for America.

ROSE: What Sessions does not say in that interview is that the Johnson Reed Act excluded huge groups of people. It placed very low caps on immigration from Southern Europe – Italy, in particular – and excluded all immigrants from Asia. I talked to an expert on this law. Her name is Mae Ngae. She’s a professor at Columbia University where she studies the history of immigration. And to her, it’s striking that Jeff Sessions does not talk about those quotas and those limits when he discusses this law.

Kelly, Rose and Ngae provide nothing to support NPR’s insinuation that Sessions – who has spent nearly 50 years in public service including 20 as a legislator in the United States Senate – advocates the restoration of the national-origin quotas that Ngae and Rose refer to, yet that’s the subhead for the story.

Contrary to what NPR listeners may glean from the segment, there is no effort in Washington, D.C. to restore the national-origin quotas, and hasn’t been in at least my lifetime. Not one person in Washington, including Sessions, is pushing for them; they’ve been gone for over 50 years and they aren’t coming back. Rigorous journalism does not imply that someone supports something because they don’t talk about it. Can you imagine the following getting past an editor:

Baseball fan says game was more fun in the dead-ball era when there were fewer homers – an era that is often remembered today for its racist exclusion of black players.

“There was more strategy in the dead-ball era,” said the fan. “The increase in home runs has changed the game so that fans don’t see as many stolen bases, squeeze bunts or plays at the plate.”

But a professor of baseball history says it is striking that the fan doesn’t say anything about the racism of the dead-ball era that denied blacks the opportunity to play.

Sessions no more calls for a return to the entire immigration system of the 1920s than the baseball fan in the example above pines for segregation. Sessions’ comments are about the changes to the levels of immigration; to the numbers. The question of immigration limits is the most common victim of the media’s narrow and exclusive approach to immigration reporting. Kelly and Rose demonstrate how it is commonly done: Sessions gives a speech about immigration numbers and they change the subject to national-origin quotas.

Sessions’ timeline is accurate. Kelly and Rose don’t dispute that. Congress ended the first “Great Wave” of immigration in the 1920s and, during the low-immigration / tight-labor market period of the mid-20th century, America became a middle-class nation.

SESSIONS: {President Coolidge} believed it was rational and sensible to swing the pendulum back towards the average-wage-earning American. And they did that. They passed laws that reduced the flow for a time – for, I guess, 40 years. And the labor market tightened. And as Coolidge predicted, wages began to grow, and we had a very strong middle class.

ROSE: So basically, Jeff Sessions here is crediting the postwar economic boom to limits on immigration. Most economists say that there are other ways – better ways to explain what happened in the postwar boom – for example, the GI Bill.

KELLY: Sure.

ROSE: And the growth of the middle class could be explained in other ways too. But most economists believe immigration is actually good for the economy overall – or at the worst neutral. And they would not agree with what Sessions is arguing here.

Again, Rose changes the subject from the impact that record-levels of immigration have on wage-earning Americans to the impact that immigration has on “the economy overall.” Based on usage, reporters must believe this fact to be among one of – if not the – most important things for Americans to understand about immigration policy’s effect on their lives. The infatuation with “the economy overall” is part of a disconnect between immigration reporters and the unique lives and circumstances of individuals who bear the costs so that “the economy” (overall!) can benefit.

With a brief dismissal, Rose ignores the findings of multiple national commissions, studies, and stories that demonstrate the economic tradeoffs of mass immigration. For instance, the economists who contributed to the National Academy of Science’s 2016 report, “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” found that the benefit (what is known as the immigration “surplus”) to the economy could be as much as $54.2 billion per year. In order to generate that surplus, however, the wages of workers in competition with new immigrant workers would have to be reduced by $439.9 billion per year. You cannot have the $54.2 billion surplus without the $439.9 billion in redistributed wages. Immigration reporters constantly point to the former while all but denying the existence of the latter. That alone could be enough to explain the media’s utter failure to predict or understand the appeal of Trump the candidate.

The immigration reductions in the mid-20th century weren’t a silver bullet for American workers (native-born or naturalized) but they did help tip the balance of power in their favor, as they used their increased leverage to unionize and demand better wages and working conditions – at least until Congress reversed course and started the current, Greatest Wave of immigration, which has been marked by decades of stagnant wages, rising inequality and the decline of the middle class.

Kelly, Rose and NPR report as if the huge fluctuations in immigration over the past hundred years has had no significant impact on wages. If anyone can find an example of NPR denying the law of supply and demand with regards to any other subject, please let me know.

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

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