One paragraph in the New York Times' April 4 story "Immigration Bill Splitting House G.O.P." demonstrates the subtle bias that frequently mars otherwise good immigration reporting.
See if you can catch it:
"Republican advocates of loosening immigration laws are moving to attach the measure to the annual defense policy bill. It would offer a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who came to the country before the age of 15 and enlist in the military. But they are running into vociferous opposition from anti-immigration hard-liners."
The paragraph begins on a strong note: "Republican advocates of loosening immigration laws." For a moment, the Times appears to drive at the heart of the immigration debate. Should the nation loosen immigration laws and take more people in, or tighten immigration laws and accept fewer immigrants? Sadly, the Times' doesn't get the immigration debate and it's subtle bias is apparent by the end of the paragraph.
In the Times' view one side of the debate argues for "loosening immigration." These people are "advocates" and their actions entail things like "moving to attach" measures to legislation.
On the other side, the Times doesn't see advocates for tighter immigration laws, but people who are "anti-immigration." These people are "hard-liners" defined not by what they want but by their "vociferous opposition" to the aforementioned "advocates."
Which side do you think the reporters who wrote this story identify with?
This false dichotomy is a common problem in immigration reporting, not just because it casts one side of the debate in a more favorable light than the other, but because it distracts from the real difference of opinion: the numerical level of immigration. Contrary to the Times' report, nobody in the story is "anti-immigration." None of the people described as "hard-liners" are calling for an end to immigration (there are Members of Congress who are calling for an end to deportations but they are never described as "anti-enforcement hard-liners"). That's not to say that there isn't a world of difference between the two sides. There is. The major difference of opinion is about the numerical limits. But the Times', along with most of today's media, isn't interested in the numbers.
This wasn't always the case. The New York Times has long favored immigration expansion yet in the past it at least acknowledged the question of numerical limits. In a 1982 editorial advocating for the Simpson-Mazzoli bill that would later become the 1986 amnesty, the Times wrote:
"Unlimited immigration was a need, and a glory, of the undeveloped American past. Yet no one believes America can still support it. We must choose how many people to admit, and which ones. That can be done only if we can control the borders. Otherwise, a population troubled by hard times will slam the Golden Door."
The Times no longer concerns itself with the question of limits. The new dogma within the paper is that immigration is a "civil rights issue" with nothing less than the "heart and soul" of the United States at stake. Viewed through that paradigm, there is no room for a civil debate about limits or the impact that mass immigration has on the labor market, the social safety net or environmental quality of life. You're either on the side of civil rights or you're not.
Many readers of this blog will disagree, but I don't believe the reporters who wrote this story are intentionally biased. I believe the unconscious bias stems from a heart-felt but limited (no pun intended) point of view that makes it difficult for them to understand where the other half of the debate is coming from.
The ears of immigration reporters who share the Times' bias are more attuned to anti-immigration sentiment than to legitimate concerns about immigration numbers that are quadruple the historical average and twice the recommended levels of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. They are also more likely to interpret the latter as the former. This is likely to continue until advocates on both sides are called upon to explain their limiting principles. NumbersUSA's can be found here.
Let the New York Times (circa 1982) be their guide.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Apr 7th 2014 @ 12:22pm EDT