Headlines across the country last week touted a recently released study by an anti-immigration group seeking to prove that granting amnesty to the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US would cost the government billions of dollars. The release of the study was perfectly timed as the GOP debated the role of immigration in its platform for the upcoming Republican National Convention.
"Illegal Immigrants Cost U.S. $10 Billion a Year, Study Says" (Knight Ridder Newspapers), "Immigration Proposals Could Cost Taxpayers Plenty, Study Says (Copley News Service), "Report Says Illegal Immigrants Cost Country Billions" (Gannett News Service), declared the nationâ€™s newspapers as the story broke in dutiful response to a well-aimed press release. Most reports included responses from immigrantsâ€™ rights groups only as an afterthought and little if any of the skepticism the public should be able to expect from the media.
The gist of the report, published by the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank focused on immigration policy, is that to the tune of $10 billion, undocumented workers take more in services than they pay in taxes. The studyâ€™s authors go on to conclude that since immigrantsâ€™ earning power is not likely to go up any time soon, granting legal status to undocumented immigrants would give them access to even more benefits, and therefore increase their unpaid debt to society.
In covering a policy debate that has the potential to affect the quality of life for the over ten million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States, the media wields an immense amount of power. When running a story on a study that argues immigrants never be given full rights in US society, the onus is on reporters and editors to be extremely sensitive to the potential impact and the fairness of their reporting.
The Center disingenuously arrived at its supporting figures by adding up how much money undocumented immigrants pay in taxes, summing the cost of the benefits these immigrants receive from the government, and finally calculating the difference between those two numbers. But as immigrantsâ€™ rights groups point out, figuring how much a group of people gives to or takes from society is not that simple.
To their credit, some newspapers waited a day to release news of the report, presumably to gather responses from the other side of this issue, but even articles including extensive quotations from immigrantsâ€™ rights advocates heavily favored the Center for Immigration Studyâ€™s report in their coverage. In the dozen major newspaper and wire service articles reviewed for this analysis, the bias toward the Centerâ€™s report was revealed in the comparative number of words given to each side, the placement of quotes and points of view, and the framing of the debate.
Scattered throughout reporting on the issue are various challenges to the Centerâ€™s study, though these are outnumbered by a ratio of more than two to one and receive little help from the media in terms of cohesion or prominence.
The headline and the lead paragraph of any article are seen by the most eyeballs, and in coverage of this issue, those eyeballs were served on a silver platter to the Center for Immigration Studies.
Only the LA Times, with its "Study Says Illegal Immigrants Cost U.S. $10 Billion a Year; Analysis Is Disputed" and the Washington Post with its only slightly biased title "Illegal Immigrants' Cost to Government Studied" ran headlines that did not parrot the studyâ€™s findings.
Nevertheless, lead paragraphs across the board quoted recited the Centerâ€™s stance faithfully:
"Illegal immigrants to the United States cost the federal government over $10 billion a year, but that figure would increase almost threefold if they were granted legal status, according to a study released on Wednesday," began the Reuters newswire article. Reutersâ€™ readers had to read through a full ten paragraphs before encountering a quote from an immigrantsâ€™ rights advocate.
The LA Times article, which promised a dispute of the study in its headline, led with: "Illegal immigrants cost the federal government more than $10 billion a year, and a program to legalize the undocumented would nearly triple that figure, a study released today concludes." Notice the placement in its entirety of a controversial statement of "fact" in front of the attribution of the source ("a study released today"), thus giving the reader the impression that the paper upholds the finding.
It then took the Times five paragraphs to get around to mentioning that anyone has a gripe with the Centerâ€™s numbers, and it does so with one sentence: "Other immigration researchers challenged some of the study's assumptions about what illegal immigrants cost the government." With that out of the way, the Times immediately presents another eight paragraphs devoted to the Centerâ€™s study and its author. The dissenting opinion we are promised finally emerges in the form of a single source, granted all of three short paragraphs at the very end of the piece.
Overall, the media coverage of the report was framed in such a way that the Centerâ€™s results are presented coherently, with generous coverage of the various points and conclusions backed up by explanations from the reportâ€™s author. Journalists paraphrased the studyâ€™s findings and did next to nothing of their own analysis of the obvious flaws and biases in the reportsâ€™ methodology and conclusions.
Instead, reporters left it up to the one or two (in cases where they were relatively thorough) immigrantsâ€™ rights advocates they contacted to poke holes in various aspects of the report. This type of anecdotal quoting without accompanying narrative analysis, verification or clarification is particularly unfair to dissenting viewpoints.
For instance, papers in the Los Angeles Newspaper group quoted Democratic Representative Hilda Solis, who "questioned the study's numbers and cited other reports that found households headed by illegal immigrants contribute about $8,100 more than they receive in benefits." But those studiesâ€™ methodologies were not meaningfully compared to the Centerâ€™s, nor were they even named, in case a curious reader wanted to further investigate.
In covering a policy debate that has the potential to affect the quality of life for the over ten million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States, the media wields an immense amount of power. When running a story about a study that accuses those millions of "cost[ing] the federal government an estimated $26 billion in Medicaid expenses, free lunches, food stamps and other benefits," (Gannett New Service) and argues that they never be given full rights in US society, the onus is on reporters and editors to be extremely sensitive to the potential impact and the fairness of their reporting.
A couple of articles pointed out that the studyâ€™s authors chose to do their accounting by household, instead of by individual, obscuring the fact that many households have mixed immigration status. Therefore, US citizens and documented immigrants are included when calculating the overall costs attributed in the study to undocumented immigrants.
But none made a detailed, critical look at the Centerâ€™s methodology in calculating its numbers. In the Centerâ€™s balance sheet, undocumented immigrants and their children (many of whom are US citizens) are charged for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, food stamps, welfare, tax credits, education, uninsured emergency health care, running the INS, federal prisons, courts, and even highway and infrastructure maintenance. Yet they are credited only for paying taxes and contributing to Social Security, Unemployment insurance and Medicare.
They are not credited for sales tax, nor is there an acknowledgement of the benefit provided to businesses by immigrants working for low wages. The people dubbed a burden on America are not given credit for working as grossly underpaid migrant farmers and keeping the cost of food low; they are not credited for looking after peopleâ€™s children as low-wage nannies; nor are they credited for serving as meagerly paid construction workers, cleaners and restaurant workers. In short, the study offers no credit for the enormous subsidy immigrants provide to companies and consumers by working for a pittance.
Additionally, since the argument seems to be that poor immigrants cost society because they need services and cannot pay much in taxes, it stands to reason that a responsible journalist might look into comparing the tax payments of undocumented immigrantsâ€™ to those of American citizens living in poverty. None did.
Perhaps even more egregious than the methodology and the assumptions embodied by the Centerâ€™s study, is the policy conclusion that comes out of it, in favor of a more restrictive stance on immigration. There should be no surprise that an organization which openly says it has a "vision which seeks fewer immigrants" would publish a study called "The High Cost of Cheap Labor" and still miss the point. But that the media would spoon feed such conclusions to the public without so much as a peep shows blatant irresponsibility and disregard for the impact of the press on society.
The Center concludes that even if given legal status, undocumented immigrants will still be poor and still pay less in taxes. At the same time, under an amnesty program, these immigrants will be eligible for more help from the government and their burden on society will increase. Therefore, writes the Center, amnesty and legalization programs will cost the government billions of dollars.
Aside from the fact that to a society that valued helping the poor, such a cost - if it really exists - might be worth it, the Centerâ€™s recommendation is very narrow-minded. The authors could just as easily have recommended implementing an amnesty program that includes worker and wage protections to help lift undocumented immigrants out of the shadows of unrecognized poverty and into a higher tax bracket. But of the newspapers reviewed for this story, not one mentions such an obvious alternative to the Centerâ€™s closed border utopia.