"First thing to remember," said author and journalist Charles Bowden at dinner, "is that any number you hear about illegal immigration is a lie." His was a cynical warning issued to a group of journalists gathered in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona for a seminar called "Covering the Border" sponsored by the Institute for Justice in Journalism. But his perspective seemed a fair one, considering the uncritical way that some reporters absorb, then simply repeat numbers they are given by advocates of one side or another, failing to do the necessary leg work to try to either assure their accuracy or at least understand the broader context of the issues that the figures are aligned with.

Hearing Bowden’s words made me think that though the numbers themselves might not be "lies," they likely don’t often well represent the "truth" when it comes to coverage of illegal immigration issues.

It’s the question every reporter needs to ask a source: "How do you know?"Just before attending this seminar, I’d aired a three-part series exploring the identity of Phoenix, Arizona broadcast on NPR’s "Morning Edition." The middle part of the series focused on the effects of illegal immigration on the city. In my reporting, I’d said the immigration debate is "driven largely by emotion, rather than data," and very soon I received about a dozen e-mails accusing me of biased reporting and ignorance about available research. From one side of the political spectrum came charges that I’d ignored studies showing how illegal immigrants were responsible for escalating crime rates, along with a rise in public costs for health care, social services, and schools. From the other side came accusations that I’d failed to use research showing how these workers contributed to the Social Security system while the work they were doing kept the economy afloat.

Aware of much of this research, my reporting had convinced me that, at worst, these "findings" were generated and used by agenda-driven organizations or, at best, were based on assumptions that even the researchers admitted to me were "mushy." After all, illegal immigrants are also "undocumented immigrants" so, by definition, this population is officially uncountable. More than a few of these illegals whom I’ve interviewed are uncomfortable answering research-like questions — even when asked anonymously.

Sifting Through the Numbers

So how does a reporter determine the "facts" in reporting such a story? To start with, it is imperative to investigate how information about these people and the lives they lead in this country is derived. It’s the question every reporter needs to ask a source: "How do you know?"

Start with the most basic statistic: How many illegal immigrants are in this country? One widely quoted source puts the number in the range of 10 to 12 million, while another has it in the range of 20 million. The generally accepted — and more widely used — number is 12 million, and it comes from Jeffrey Passel at the Pew Hispanic Center. Passel is a former researcher with the U.S. Census Bureau, which is still where his data come from. To derive this figure, he used what’s called the "residual method," which means that he took the total number of people who anonymously identified themselves as "immigrants," then subtracts the number of legal immigrants — those who have documents — and the residual number is those who are here illegally. But Passel’s calculations are based on old data (the 2000 census), which had 10 million as the residual number. To get his current figure, he estimated that two million more have arrived during the past six years.

In 2004, investigative reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele reported in Time magazine that as many as three million illegal immigrants enter the country each year. In a telephone interview, Barlett told me he believes the total number of illegal immigrants is perhaps as high as 20 million. He cited a study done by the investment firm Bear Stearns that looked at data collected in so-called "gateway communities" far from the border, such as in North Carolina. In these places, there have been enormous, unpredicted spikes in categories such as school enrollment: The study attributes such spikes to the influx of undocumented immigrants.

In their Time story, Barlett and Steele wrote that three million illegal immigrants enter the country every year. They based that figure on U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions — about one million each year — and then multiplied that figure by three based on the border patrol’s estimate that three people get into the country for each one who is caught. They came under fire for doing this for two reasons:

  1. Each time the Border Patrol picks up an illegal crosser, it’s counted as an apprehension. So if someone tries to cross six times (which is not uncommon) and is caught each time, six apprehensions are recorded for only one person. Then, if this person succeeds in the seventh attempt — not caught and therefore not counted — this means one illegal immigrant crossed the border, not six. Using such figures to determine the overall population is thus invalid.

  2. Multiplying the apprehension figure by three is a guess. Steele said they based it on interviews with Border Patrol, ranchers and local law enforcement, some of whom had even higher estimates of the number of entrants. Steele told me he went with a "conservative estimate" of three times as many apprehended.

Some reporters continue to use apprehensions to support their reporting. Some simply "lift" immigration numbers from other stories. Whether one agrees with Barlett and Steele’s numbers, at least they did a thorough job of reporting to determine them. Barlett contends that reporting on the illegal immigration issue generally is among the laziest he’s ever seen.

…immigration law enforcement that is overly reliant on border enforcement may actually lead to an increase in the number of illegal aliens residing in the United States.Perhaps the laziest reporting I’ve seen came during the April 2005 inaugural gathering of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps in Tombstone, Arizona. The organization touted 1,500 volunteers who would patrol the Mexican border. Yet a first day count (and registration confirmed by the organization) showed a generous 250 as the number of those who had signed up. But so many news organizations had committed resources to telling this story that I had the sense they were embarrassed to reveal the real turnout. Or perhaps they were too busy hyping the event to actually report this other part of the story. Mostly, their reports ignored reality and, in doing so, journalists created a different reality for viewers, listeners and readers than what they’d found at the border. The result: The "Minutemen" became far more influential than their numbers — or even the success of their effort — merited. One of their stated agendas was to raise public awareness of their side of the issue and, in that, they succeeded.

It’s also lazy for reporters to uncritically report research numbers from the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank whose mission is to limit immigration. Or from the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration think tank. Each of these organizations present well-reasoned points of view, and these are important to understand and convey. But each, too, has a defined agenda, and when their "research findings" alone are cited by journalists, they need to be placed in a context that clearly and accurately reflects the mission of the organization that provided them.

Notice that I labeled neither organization as liberal or conservative. In the congressional debate about legislation to deal with illegal immigration, the split is not occurring along such predictable lines. Instead, an odd alliance has been struck as human rights advocates and big business push a guest worker program and a path to citizenship, while law and order and border security factions favor stricter law enforcement, walls along the border, and enforced removal. Though the news media have done a pretty good job in explaining this political anomaly, my sense is that much of the public still sees this issue as one splitting along liberal and conservative lines.

"Building a Better Border"
– heritage.org
One of the best resources on immigration data comes from the conservative Heritage Foundation. Published in July 2006, the report is called "Building a Better Border: What the Experts Say," and it is written by David B. Muhlhausen. It was difficult to detect a pro- or anti-immigration bias in his report, in which Muhlhausen compiled what he considers the most reliable social science research, regardless of its point of view. His report illuminates some of the deeper contradictions that exist in immigration data. What follows is one example:

"A review of the social science literature on the effect of increased border enforcement on illegal immigration shows mixed results. Some studies find no effect, while others indicate a positive or negative relationship between increased border enforcement and illegal immigration. However, the literature indicates that increased border enforcement appears to slow the flow of illegal immigrants leaving the United States. Thus, immigration law enforcement that is overly reliant on border enforcement may actually lead to an increase in the number of illegal aliens residing in the United States. One particularly comprehensive study estimates that:

  • Hiring an additional Border Patrol agent stops roughly 771 to 1,621 individuals from coming illegally into the country.
  • The hiring of this same agent encourages roughly 831 to 1,966 individuals to increase the duration of their illegal stay in the United States.
  • Thus, the effect of an additional agent is unclear, possibly resulting in a net reduction of 503 individuals or a net increase of 995 individuals residing in the United States illegally."

The content of this report doesn’t necessarily make for a scintillating story, but perhaps it contains many stories well worth telling. As things stand right now, a lot of "reporting" about illegal immigration tends — either through lazy inattention or by purposeful intent — to veer towards "opinion journalism," in which emotion trumps this kind of thoughtful analysis. Danger arises when opinion arrives, wearing the mask of fact, and then is left unchallenged.

Ted Robbins is the Southwest United States correspondent for NPR.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment