Ever since Scott Walker name-dropped Jeff Sessions, the question of immigration levels - and whether they should be increased, decreased, or left the same - has occasionally creeped into the national immigration conversation. We should have had this debate two years ago, when a gang of eight Senators introduced legislation to double future immigration, but the media never showed any interest.
The media's focus at the time was on the impact that a future immigration law would have on people who had violated current immigration law (an important question but one that crowded out the possibility of comprehensive reporting on a so-called "comprehensive bill").
With these comments few weeks ago, Scott Walker altered (for the moment) the discussion:
The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that's based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages.
Because the more I've talked to folks -- I've talked to Senator Sessions and others out there, but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today -- is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.
Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight says a focus on jobs and wages is a "legal immigration faux pas" because it invites a debate about decreasing the current rate of immigration which stands at approximately 1 million per year. Walker "stepped in it," Enten writes, because a) the GOP donor class likes high levels of immigration, and b) Republican voters like high levels of immigration. To back up the latter point, Enten writes:
A Pew Research Center survey from May 2013 found 53 percent of self-identified Republicans wanted legal immigration levels either increased (20 percent) or kept constant (33 percent). A CBS News poll from April 2013 found that 60 percent of Republicans wanted legal immigration levels either increased (22 percent) or kept constant (38 percent). And conservative Republicans were about as likely as liberal and moderate Republicans to favor maintaining or increasing legal immigration levels, according to the Pew survey.
Good point! Talking about immigration limits is a political loser. We should go back to the days when the Senate voted to change the limits without any debate.
But, wait! Another reading of the Pew poll is that 74 percent of self-identified Republicans wanted legal immigration levels either decreased (41 percent - double that of those who wanted it increased) or kept constant (33 percent). And the CBS poll found that 72 percent of Republicans wanted legal immigration levels either decreased (34 percent) or kept constant (38 percent).
NumbersUSA's soon-to-be-released presidential comparison pages will show that most of the 2016 Republican candidates favor increasing immigration. If Walker's consideration of decreasing the limits is a "faux pas," what would Enten call taking an immigration-increase position that 3-out-of-4 Republicans oppose?
Nick Gillespie sees Enten's "faux pas" and raises him a "political suicide" in his column for The Daily Beast. Gillespie also points to polling to show how knuckle-dragging dumb (his image) it is for politicians introduce the mere concept of reducing the rate of immigration:
Contra Sessions, there is no clear public desire for reducing immigration, except among Republicans. Fully 84 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied with the current generous levels, a super-majority that only shows how out of touch the GOP faithful is with the rest of the country. Earlier this year, Gallup found that 54 percent of Americans are either satisfied with current levels of immigration or want more immigration. Just 39 percent were dissatisfied and want less immigration, which is 11 points lower than the same figure in 2008.
Gillespie got a little creative getting to his "54 percent." Gallup's findings break down like this, from the highest percentage to the lowest:
- 39 percent of U.S. adults* were dissatisfied with current levels** and wanted them reduced;
- 33 percent were satisfied with the current levels;
- 14 percent were dissatisfied "but did not express a specific preference for either increasing or decreasing it; and
- 7 percent were dissatisfied and wanted immigration levels increased.
Gillespie combines the second, third, and fourth groups to reach his 54 percent who are "satisfied with current levels of immigration or want more immigration" even though the third group of 14 percent could go any of three ways.
Using Gillespie's assumption that the 14 percent group is up for grabs, he could have just as easily written that 86 percent of U.S. adults are either satisfied with current levels of immigration or want it reduced. Throw out the ambiguous 14 percent and you still get 72 percent (same as the CBS poll) who oppose the immigration increases called for by most of the 2016 candidates and that the Senate voted for in 2013. Just 7 percent of adults living in the U.S. support that position. If taking a position that 39 percent of adults want is "political suicide," how would Gillespie describe taking a position that just 7 percent want?
Enten and Gillespie's columns reflect the mainstream media's attitude toward the levels of immigration. They only pay attention to the question of limits when someone raises the possibility of lowering the numbers. The Walkers, Sessions' (and NumbersUSAs) of the world are portrayed as taking a curious, fringe position. But platforms, speeches, or legislation that call for increasing the numbers are taken in stride (if noted at all) even when that is - by far - the least popular of the three options regarding immigration levels.
*Gallup polled adults living in the U.S., which includes but is not limited to American voters.
**The Gallup poll did not say what the current levels of immigration are.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, May 29th 2015 @ 9:10am EDT