Behind the Pew Study on Illegal Immigration, Part I: First the 'Good' News

By Stanley Renshon, September 3, 2010

The new report from the Pew Hispanic Center is certain to be widely discussed and widely misunderstood. The report delivers the conclusion most likely to be quoted in its title, "U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade."

Right on cue, the Associated Press reports, as if it were an established fact, rather than what it is – an estimate – that, "The number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. has dropped for the first time in two decades – decreasing by 8 percent since 2007, a new study finds."

The Pew Report itself delivers its most noteworthy finding in the first paragraph; "The annual inflow of unauthorized immigrants to the United States was nearly two-thirds smaller in the March 2007 to March 2009 period than it had been from March 2000 to March 2005, according to new estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center. This sharp decline has contributed to an overall reduction of 8% in the number of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S.-to 11.1 million in March 2009 from a peak of 12 million in March 2007, according to the estimates. The decrease represents the first significant reversal in the growth of this population over the past two decades."

The title, summary and first paragraphs seem to deliver good news. There has been a decrease in illegal immigration. It is the first significant reversal in the growth of the illegal population in the past two decades, a reduction of 8 percent. And the annual inflow of illegal immigrants to the United States was nearly two-thirds smaller in the March 2007-2009 period than it was in the March 2000 to 2005 period.

Clearly something appears to be happening, but what? Equally important is the question of why? Assuming the reduction numbers are accurate, what accounts for them?

About the first question we can say that there is much more to puzzle about in the report than is contained in its titled headline or its first paragraph. The Pew Report contains a great deal of very interesting information which is almost assured of not being read or discussed because it will be trumped by headline. It will however, be taken up in a subsequent entry here.

About the second question – "why" – many erroneous claims are already being made. Within hours of the report's release, Politico reported that "The Obama administration is touting an independent report released Wednesday that shows that the number of illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. fell by nearly 65 percent in recent years." More specifically, DHS spokesman Matt Chandler said in a statement, "This administration's unprecedented commitment of manpower, technology and infrastructure to the Southwest border has been a major factor in this dramatic drop in illegal crossings." Regrettably for the administration's position, this is not possibly true, because the president was in office for only two months out of the two years that are covered by the Pew Study.

Major news coverage has not done much better. A Washington Post reporter writes: "A deep recession and tougher border enforcement have led to a sharp decline in the number of immigrants entering the United States illegally in the past five years, contributing to the first significant reversal in the growth of their numbers in two decades, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center."

The New York Times reporter followed the same line, writing, "The figures show that more than a year of recession in the American economy, coupled with intensifying immigration enforcement at the Southwest border and in workplaces around the country, brought a reduction of at least 900,000 illegal immigrants."

Unfortunately for both these assertions, presented as fact, the Pew Report says that it did not make any analysis of "why these changes occurred. During the period covered the analysis, there have been major shifts in the level of immigration enforcement and in enforcement strategies, as well as large swings in the economy….But the data in this report do not allow quantification of these factors and are not designed to explain why flows and populations totals declined." (p. iii)

What "the data in this report do not allow" is, of course, no barrier to efforts at political and spin and political misunderstanding. A closer look at exactly what the report does say will dampen whatever despair "comprehensive immigration reform" advocates might feel or enthusiasm that strict enforcement advocates might gain from focusing too intently on the headlines.

Before getting to, in further entries, just what is really in the Pew Report and what it means for the immigration debates now making their way across America, it is worth spending a moment considering just how we arrive at figures behind the headlines.