John Stossel's Immigration Factoids

By CIS on August 14, 2015

Anyone who debates an open-borders advocate can expect to be hit with a barrage of "factoids" — pro-immigration claims that contain some element of truth, but that obscure the broader picture. That's exactly what columnist Ann Coulter encountered when she debated immigration with John Stossel, a libertarian talk-show host. One of Stossel's factoids was particularly misleading. Here's part of his own summary of the debate:

Coulter says that the new immigrants don't assimilate the way Europeans did. Maybe that's true, but I pointed out that immigrants from Nigeria, Jamaica, and Ghana are more likely to be employed than native-born Americans and twice as likely to get a college degree. "I don't believe it," answered Coulter. (Emphasis added.)

Coulter was right to be skeptical. The following table shows that all three groups are indeed more likely than natives to be employed. However, only Nigerian immigrants, not Jamaicans or Ghanaians, are substantially more likely to have a college degree.

Selected Socioeconomic Indicators For U.S. Residents, 2012-2014

of U.S. Immigrants
Employed1 College Degree1 In or Near Poverty2 Welfare
All Natives -- 71.9% 33.6% 29.0% 24.3%
All Immigrants 100.0% 70.8% 30.9% 42.8% 38.8%
The "Stossel Three"          
    Nigeria 0.7% 76.2% 66.0% 35.9% 33.9%
    Jamaica 1.6% 75.1% 29.8% 32.3% 34.3%
    Ghana 0.4% 77.3% 34.4% 40.4% 45.9%
Mexico 28.3% 67.9% 6.2% 61.8% 58.0%

Source: March Current Population Surveys, 2012-2014.
1 Ages 25-64.
2 In or near poverty defined as less than 200% of the poverty threshold. Figures are for persons 18 and older.
3 Household-level use of food, cash, medical care, and housing programs.

The problems with the factoid don't end there. Stossel purports to show that new immigrants surpass natives economically, but the three immigrant groups he chose — call them "the Stossel Three" — are just 2.7 percent of the adult foreign-born population. If Stossel wanted to make a point about immigrant economic success, why didn't he illustrate it with the most common immigrant nationalities? Probably because he would no longer have a point. As the table indicates, 28 percent of all adult immigrants in the United States are from Mexico, but just 6 percent of Mexican immigrants have a college degree.

Furthermore, employment and education do not provide a complete economic picture, especially for immigrants. In modern America, employment is not an automatic ticket out of poverty, as the fourth column in the table shows. Adult immigrants, including those from the Stossel Three, are more likely to be in or near poverty compared to natives. Even a college degree is not a guarantee of prosperity for immigrants, since skills may not transfer easily between countries. (We've all heard the stories about immigrant taxi drivers with PhDs.) Moreover, with accreditation systems that are weak or non-existent, many colleges in developing countries are of very low quality. Perhaps this helps explain why, according to the last column of the table, more than one-third of Nigerian-headed households use welfare despite the large share with a college education.

Finally, immigrants from the Stossel Three are not representative of their compatriots back home. Nigeria, Jamaica, and Ghana are poor countries and only a select few are able to immigrate. If we had open borders, which appears to be Stossel's position, a far poorer and less educated group of immigrants than the Stossel Three would likely arrive.

The bottom line is that immigrants vary enormously in their economic success here in America. Countries such as India generally send high-skill workers to the United States, while Mexico sends mostly unskilled workers. Factoids about three minor sending countries serve only to mislead about the overall effect of immigration. If we want the most successful immigrants that Stossel touts, we need a careful, limited selection system — not open borders.