Fox News hosted Sen. Jeff Sessions to amplify false conservative claims that immigration reform would negatively affect the U.S. economy and has a detrimental impact on Americans' wages. Sessions made similar claims in a USA Today op-ed published the same day, using misleading data from anti-immigrant groups to argue that the Republican push for reform is tantamount to "self-sabotage."
As The New York Times reported, congressional Republicans will unveil principles for immigration reform this week, in which they are "expected to call for border security and enforcement measures, as well as providing a path to legal status -- but not citizenship -- for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country." President Obama is also expected to address the issue during his State of the Union address on January 28.
In the run-up to these efforts, conservative media have attempted to hijack the debate with misleading data and bogus arguments.
On Fox News' The Real Story, host Gretchen Carlson allowed Sessions to repeatedly advance the myth that, in Carlson's words, immigration reform "could mean fewer jobs for Americans who are struggling, and quite frankly, already live here." Sessions stated:
SESSIONS: We really do have a huge problem. We have the lowest percentage of Americans actually working today than since 1975. Wages have declined in America relative to inflation since 2000. American working people are hurting; many of the jobs created today are part-time so it makes no sense to me at all to see a dramatic increase in the legal flow of immigration while we're not even reducing the illegal flow.
He went on to repeat the bogus statistic from anti-immigrant nativist group NumbersUSA that immigration reform legislation, such as the one passed by the Senate in June 2013 and endorsed by the Obama administration, would import 30 million new immigrants into the country. FactCheck.org criticized the number as "inflated and misleading," noting that the legislation would add "an estimated 6 million new foreign job seekers over the next 10 years."
Sessions, who has been profiled as one of the most "persistent and vocal foe[s]" of immigration reform and who led the effort to quash the Senate bill in 2013, later argued on Fox that the "Republicans need to stand up for the American worker," who he claimed was "the person in America today that's been ignored" and whose "interests are being ignored." He concluded: "Somebody needs to stand for them and the party that does that will be rewarded by the American people in elections."
Sessions took a similar stand in his USA Today op-ed, writing:
Republicans have the opportunity to give voice to the working and middle-class Americans whose wages and job prospects have eroded drastically in recent years. House GOP leaders are reportedly planning to release their "immigration principles" this week. Unfortunately, leaks reveal the leaders' plan mirrors central elements of the president's plan, combining work permits for millions of illegal immigrants with large permanent increases in the flow of new workers from abroad. This would be an extraordinary act of self-sabotage.
The choice is clear. Either the GOP can help the White House deliver a crushing hammer blow to the middle class -- or it can stand alone as the one party defending the legitimate interests of American workers.
But Sessions' argument that immigration is inimical to the economy has been thoroughly discredited by a long line of studies. In fact, as the New York Times noted in February 2013: "There are many ways to debate immigration, but when it comes to economics, there isn't much of a debate at all."
The Times continued:
Nearly all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants -- those here legally or not -- benefit the overall economy. "That is not controversial," Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told me. Shierholz also said that "there is a consensus that, on average, the incomes of families in this country are increased by a small, but clearly positive amount, because of immigration."
The benefit multiplies over the long haul. As the baby boomers retire, the post-boom generation's burden to finance their retirement is greatly alleviated by undocumented immigrants. Stephen Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, told me that undocumented workers contribute about $15 billion a year to Social Security through payroll taxes. They only take out $1 billion (very few undocumented workers are eligible to receive benefits). Over the years, undocumented workers have contributed up to $300 billion, or nearly 10 percent, of the $2.7 trillion Social Security Trust Fund.
The Times article concluded: "As immigration reform seems more likely than at any time in recent memory, it's important to remember that it is not the economic realities that have changed. It's the political ones."
Sessions' claim that immigration drives down wages is also not borne out by evidence. In fact, as the Brookings Institution noted following a comprehensive review of numerous studies on the issue, "Although many are concerned that immigrants compete against Americans for jobs, the most recent economic evidence suggests that, on average, immigrant workers increase the opportunities and incomes of Americans." Brookings continued:
One reason for this effect is that immigrants and U.S.-born workers generally do not compete for the same jobs; instead, many immigrants complement the work of U.S. employees and increase their productivity. For example, low-skilled immigrant laborers allow U.S.-born farmers, contractors, and craftsmen to expand agricultural production or to build more homes--thereby expanding employment possibilities and incomes for U.S. workers. Another way in which immigrants help U.S. workers is that businesses adjust to new immigrants by opening stores, restaurants, or production facilities to take advantage of the added supply of workers; more workers translate into more business.
Because of these factors, economists have found that immigrants slightly raise the average wages of all U.S.-born workers.
Even Harvard economist George Borjas, whom Sessions used to make his case against reform, has found that "the effect is null: on average the long-term effect immigration had on wages from 1990 to 2010 was zero." Indeed, in a 2007 study on the impact of Mexican immigration from 1980 to 2000, Borjas wrote: "As expected, the wage impact of immigration is muted in the long run as capital adjusts to the increased workforce." In that report, he explicitly noted that high school dropouts are the most affected by immigration and that high school graduates and those with some college see their wages increase.
Rutgers University economist Jennifer Hunt noted however that "there may be an upside" from those findings on high school dropouts: "immigration has boosted the likelihood that native-born citizens will graduate." As National Journal reported:
The results, she suggested, may "help explain how natives respond to immigration in such a way as to obviate the potential negative impact on native wages."
In other words, even if immigration has dragged down wages for dropouts, native-born citizens have responded by simply sticking it out in high school for the hopes of better future opportunities.
Some have suggested however that Sessions' aim to kill immigration reform may not really be about helping working-class Americans. Former Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein has noted that Sessions' record "shows no sustained interest in the fortunes of the least fortunate. And Sessions has rejected policies that would help the unemployed get work and fought policies that would ease the pain of unemployment."
In fact, Klein wrote, Sessions' budget speeches "recite a bunch of policies that will directly benefit the rich, like corporate tax reform, with nothing to directly help the poor." Klein continued:
Sessions has framed his opposition to immigration reform in the terms of progressive populism. But the rest of his record isn't that of a progressive populist. And the simple fact is that if Sessions wants to help low-wage, unskilled workers, there are certainly more direct ways to do it than current and future immigrants.
In fact, it could even be done through immigration reform.
Indeed, Sessions has repeatedly blocked or derided efforts to help working-class Americans, including:
- Sessions has advocated cutting the food stamp program that has kept many families out of poverty
- Sessions has argued against raising the minimum wage, which economists agree would positively impact 30 million Americans
- Sessions voted for the Bush tax cuts, "which lowered both capital gains and income taxes for wealthy Americans"
- Sessions has voted against extending federal unemployment benefits, which helped lift 1.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2012
In essence, Sessions has repeatedly voted for what economists say is a major driver of income inequality -- policy choices that are intended to redistribute income upward and favor the wealthy and corporate interests -- and against measures that could reduce income inequality.