Coverage of the immigration bill: So many opinions, so little data.
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Coverage of the immigration bill: So many opinions, so little data.

August 3, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump announces support for bill aiming to reduce legal immigration by 50 percent

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced his support for a bill that aims to reduce legal immigration to the U.S. by approximately 50 percent within the next decade. He made his comments in a speech at the White House.

The bill — the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act (RAISE) — is sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ar) and David Perdue (R-Ga). It was originally proposed in February. CNN reports that the new version contains “slight” changes.  

The RAISE Act proposes to:

  • Create a merit-based system to evaluate candidates for immigration. Candidates would be measured by points awarded for education, English language skills, age, high-salaried job offers, ability to pay for one’s healthcare, as well as entrepreneurial initiative. The system would also favor skills particularly useful to the U.S. economy.
  • Eliminate the State Department’s diversity visa lottery, through which citizens of countries underrepresented in the U.S. can gain permanent residence status (green cards). The lottery currently awards around 50,000 green cards a year.
  • Reduce the number of refugees accepted each year from 110,000 to 50,000.
  • Keep the priority given to spouses and underage children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents when issuing green cards, while eliminating the priority for extended family members (siblings, adult children, parents, etc.).
  • Create temporary, renewable non-work visas for older-adult parents of U.S. citizens over the age of 21 who wish to move the parent(s) to the country for caretaking purposes.

In 2015, green cards were awarded to a total of 1,051,031 immigrants, according to Department of Homeland Security estimates. In 2014, 64 percent of green cards were issued to people with familial ties to the U.S., and 15 percent were issued to people through employment-based preferences, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent research organization. The remaining green cards were issued to refugees through the diversity lottery program.

The sponsors of the new bill estimate it will reduce the total number of immigrants to 638,000 the first year and to 540,000 after 10 years. This would mainly be achieved by reducing the number of immigrants brought in through family connections. The 140,000 green cards awarded due to job skills would remain “roughly” the same, according to The New York Times.

Distortion Highlights

  • The further we get from the facts, the easier it is to jump to conclusions about an issue.
  • That’s what happened with the coverage of the proposed bill to limit legal immigration.
  • Media outlets present seemingly strong arguments for and against the bill, but neither they nor their sources back up their points.
  • We want you to have the data, so we did some digging to fill in some of the missing information.

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The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Undercut

    Critics said the proposal would undercut the fundamental vision of the United States as a haven for the poor and huddled masses, while the president and his allies said the country had taken in too many low-skilled immigrants for too long to the detriment of American workers. (The New York Times)

  • Dramatically

    Top White House aides have been working with Perdue and Cotton on the bill that — if passed — would dramatically remake the current immigration system …  (CNN)

  • Combative

    A White House aide defended the administration’s proposal in a combative briefing with reporters Wednesday afternoon, denouncing questions about whether the proposal would undermine the U.S.’s historical role as a destination for people in need. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Sharply

    President Trump embraced a proposal on Wednesday to slash legal immigration to the United States in half within a decade by sharply curtailing the ability of American citizens and legal residents to bring family members into the country. (The New York Times)

    The measure … would sharply reduce immigration based on family ties, and it would end a lottery that gives people from underrepresented countries a chance to emigrate to the U.S. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Intensified

    In asking Congress to curb legal immigration, Mr. Trump intensified a debate about national identity, economic growth, worker fairness and American values that animated his campaign last year. (The New York Times)

  • Crack down

    Mr Trump has long vowed to crack down on the US immigration system. (BBC)

  • Fiery

    The plan endorsed by Mr. Trump generated a fiery exchange at the White House briefing when Stephen Miller, the president’s policy adviser and a longtime advocate of immigration limits, defended the proposal. (The New York Times)

  • Stem the flow

    The plan would enact the most far-reaching changes to the system of legal immigration in decades and represents the president’s latest effort to stem the flow of newcomers to the United States. (The New York Times)

  • Devastating

    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that the bill would have a “devastating” impact on the economy in South Carolina – the state he represents. (BBC, CNN)

    “If this proposal were to become law, it would be devastating to our state’s economy, which relies on this immigrant work force,” he said. (The New York Times)

The further we get from the facts, the easier it is to jump to conclusions about an issue and futilely argue opinion against opinion. Without precise data, we can argue either side to our heart’s content, biased that something’s good or bad without precisely understanding why.

That’s what happened with the coverage of the proposed bill to limit legal immigration: media outlets present seemingly strong arguments for and against the bill, but neither they nor their sources back up their points.

At The Knife, we want you to have the data, so we did some digging to fill in some of the missing information. Of course, we can’t give you all of it—you’d be reading this analysis for several days—but here’s a start.

Note: The sources cited below did not provide a definition for what they termed “immigrants” or “foreign born.” Either category could potentially include immigrants who later became naturalized U.S. citizens.

Impact on U.S. wages

The New York Times writes that “Mr. Cotton said low-skilled immigrants pushed down wages for those who worked with their hands.” In other words, Cotton reportedly suggested that limiting legal immigration would raise wages for working-class Americans. However, there’s no data in any of the articles to support or refute the claim. We found several studies contradicting Cotton’s point, and a couple that were mixed:

  • A 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that “There is little evidence that immigration significantly affects the overall employment levels of native-born workers.”
  • A 2014 publication by the information resource company IZA World of Labor examined data from 27 empirical studies, and found the effects of immigration on wages of native-born workers was around zero.
  • A 2016 study by the Wharton School of Business said “Economic analysis finds little support for the view that inflows of foreign labor have reduced jobs or Americans’ wages.”
  • A 2013 publication by Center for Immigration Studies cites immigration economist George Borjas’ finding: “immigration reduces the wages of natives in competition with immigrants by an estimated $402 billion a year, while increasing profits or the incomes of users of immigrants by an estimated $437 billion.”
  • A 2010 study by the Economic Policy Institute estimated the effect of immigration from 1994 to 2007. It found it raised the wages of U.S.-born workers, relative to foreign-born workers, by 0.4 percent (or $3.68 per week), and lowered the wages of foreign-born workers, relative to U.S.-born workers, by 4.6 percent (or $33.11 per week). Meaning, “any negative effects of new immigration over this period were felt largely by … earlier immigrants.”

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 45% Spun

  • 52% Spun

  • 57% Spun

  • 63% Spun

Impact on U.S. businesses

BBC wrote, “Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that the bill would have a ‘devastating’ impact on the economy in South Carolina” because the state relies on its immigrant workforce to provide services for restaurants, hotels, golf courses and farming. The Wall Street Journal stated the Republican party’s “pro-business wing generally support increased immigration.” We didn’t find studies directly supporting one argument or the other, but the following is noteworthy:

  • 2015 Pew Research data indicates immigrants made up 13 percent of the population and accounted for about 17 percent of the workforce (23.8 million nationwide). The four main industry groupings in which they worked were: transportation, trade and utilities (17 percent); health care and social assistance (13 percent); manufacturing (12 percent); and leisure and hospitality (12 percent). One might infer that a reduction in immigrants could have a negative impact on these industries.

Impact on the U.S. economy

CNN cites White House senior adviser Stephen Miller saying the proposed bill “protects” the country’s economy, while WSJ writes that “Many economists and business interests argue that immigration provides a net benefit to the American economy.” Did they cite any studies on immigration’s impact on GDP? Nope. Here’s one:

  • The same Center for Immigration Studies cites Borjas’ work, which estimates “the presence of immigrant workers (legal and illegal) in the labor market makes the U.S. economy (GDP) an estimated 11 percent larger ($1.6 trillion) each year.” But the Center explains that “97.8 percent of the increase in GDP goes to the immigrants themselves in the form of wages and benefits.”

The outlets we analyzed do note that reporters questioned the authors of the bill, requesting specific data indicating why legal immigration is a problem, but that the authors did not provide such information, or did so in limited fashion. Even so, the press could provide more factual information from other sources, like the above. While the above data is varied and perhaps outdated at times, it can help readers assess the potential merits or drawbacks of the bill.

Without such information, politicians and civilians alike are bound to fall into endless arguments that rely on opinion, faulty reasoning, rhetoric or the emotional force in delivery. This renders debate a battle of wills and partisanship, instead of a contest of sound reasoning that uses cooperation to find mutually beneficial solutions.


The New York Times

“In throwing his weight behind a bill, Mr. Trump added one more long-odds priority to a legislative agenda already packed with them in the wake of the defeat of legislation to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care program.”

Trump gave a speech in support of the RAISE Act, adding it to the current legislative agenda.

The New York Times

“But by endorsing legal immigration cuts, a move he has long supported, Mr. Trump returned to a theme that has defined his short political career and excites his conservative base at a time when his poll numbers continue to sink.”


Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts included in all sources

Surveys show most Americans believe legal immigration benefits the country. In a Gallup poll in January, 41 percent of Americans were satisfied with the overall level of immigration, 11 percentage points higher than the year before and the highest since the question was first asked in 2001. (The New York Times)

The juxtaposition of the first sentence with the second may suggest Gallup’s January 2017 poll said “most Americans” believed there were benefits. Yet that poll focused on satisfaction with immigration levels, not whether immigration benefits society.

A June poll by Gallup shows that, when compared with a 2007 poll that asked the same question, “more” Americans say immigration benefits U.S. society than it did previously; the poll doesn’t say “most” Americans held this view. Again, there could be a poll that supports the Times’ claim, but since it didn’t source the poll, we couldn’t verify it.

In a Gallup poll in January, 41 percent of Americans were satisfied with the overall level of immigration, 11 percentage points higher than the year before and the highest since the question was first asked in 2001. Fifty-three percent of Americans remained dissatisfied. (The New York Times)

Without context, this point may inaccurately suggest that 53 percent of Americans are against immigration, or want immigration levels reduced. According to Gallup, of the 53 percent that said they were “dissatisfied” with the level of immigration, 5 percent said they wanted an increase in immigration, 36 percent said they wanted a decrease in immigration and 12 percent said they wanted immigration levels to remain the same.

When a reporter read him some of the words from the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — Mr. Miller said, “The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” (The New York Times)

While the poem may not have been originally part of the statue, it may have contributed to its associated symbolism. According to the National Park Service, Emma Lazarus, the author, originally wrote the poem in 1883 to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal. The Park Service says Lazarus wrote the poem to depict the statue as the “Mother of Exiles” and a symbol of “immigration and opportunity.” The poem was added to the statue’s base in 1903.

The legislation would limit refugees offered permanent residency to 50,000 a year and eliminate a diversity visa lottery that the sponsors said does not promote diversity. (The New York Times)

The article doesn’t define how the lottery program may or may not “promote” diversity, but there is data to suggest that people from diverse backgrounds legally enter the U.S. through the program. For example, U.S. State Department statistics on the visa lottery program show immigration from many countries.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the greatest number of legal permanent residents came to the U.S. from Mexico, China, the Philippines and India, respectively. What determines whether the people from these countries promote or don’t promote diversity in the U.S.?


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Informs readers of the facts without drama or importing opinion, although it doesn’t provide specifics on what or how much the bill would “curb.”

Dramatizes the news using vague and dramatic language, which might inspire readers to speculate and exaggerate the potential changes to immigration law. What exactly constitutes “drastic” changes?

Also dramatizes, using the term “slashes.” This might inspire a more visceral response in readers, given its relation to cutting. These types of emotional responses may bias readers and limit their objective evaluation of the bill.


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • The bill represents an unprecedented change in immigration policy.
  • The bill is unlikely to pass since it is divisive among Republicans and unpopular with Democrats.
  • The articles give some opinions that the bill will benefit the economy by improving the quality of American jobs and wages. They give others saying that it won’t because restricting immigration limits the economic benefits associated with a larger workforce.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • There have been periods in U.S. history in which the country has been more open to legal immigration and vice versa, so the proposed limits in immigration aren’t extraordinary in terms of these cycles. The Migration Policy Institute, for example, provides historical data on the number of green cards issued. The lowest points occurred between 1823 and 1844, and 1933 and 1943. The four highest peaks occurred in 1854, 1882, 1907 and 1991 (the highest on record, with 1,826,595 immigrants). Between 1991 and 2015, there have been three peaks — in 1996, 2001 and 2006 — with their respective counts of 915,560, 1,058,902 and 1,266,129 immigrants. Since 1991, the lowest point took place in 1999 with 644,787. For comparison, the RAISE Act would limit immigration to 637,960 in its first year and 539,958 in its tenth.  
  • The articles predict the bill isn’t likely to pass, but they don’t consider whether it could pass.
  • The articles don’t provide specific data that supports either the contention that immigration is beneficial, or that limiting immigration would be beneficial. Data exists that may support both perspectives, as noted in the Distortion section.