How to Muddy the Immigration Debate by Using 'Straw' Statistics

By David North on July 28, 2020

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics

– Mark Twain

One of the time-honored tactics in debating is to create a straw man as your opponent's position and then destroy that artificial image. The debater exaggerates the trends to be created by the other guy's policies and says that they are a danger to us all.

The latest person to do this in the immigration debate is Stuart Anderson, in an article for Forbes carrying this scare headline, "Trump Cuts Legal Immigrants By Half and He's Not Done Yet".

The article states that FY 2016 legal immigration to the U.S. (i.e., grants of lawful permanent residence, or green cards) was 1,183,505 and predicts that that number will fall to 601,660 for FY 2021, a reduction of 581,845, or 49 percent. On a longer-term basis (40 years) we are told that if these policies were to stay in place, it would reduce the annual growth in the size of labor force by 59 percent – as if any of us were worried about the nation having too few workers.

Clearly the current Trump policies on immigration will cause it to shrink, at least a little bit for at least a short time, but it is a mistake to over-state the current modifications, which carry with them many loopholes.

How does Anderson, a right-wing advocate for more migration, assemble these apparently scary numbers? He uses assumptions ranging from the questionable to the crazy,  and hides his sources and methodology.

On the first point he assumes that no immigration policy changes will be made in the forty years between now and 2060; he assumes that no court or congressional decision will overturn any of Trump's moves, and though he does not say it directly, his projections appear to be based on the idea that the Covid-19 virus will still be with us forty years from now, and will still be impacting migration policy. He also assumes the re-election of President Trump and his not doing anything to end or modify the virus-based immigration-restriction practices of his April 22, 2020, order. The president, at least until a few days ago, was gung-ho to re-open the economy.

As to his sources, this is how they are described under Anderson's "Table 1: Legal Immigration Projections":

Source: National Foundation for American Policy, Dept. of Homeland Security. *Assumes presidential proclamation on suspension of most immigrant visas and other Trump administration immigration policies continue in FY 2021 and a spillover of unused numbers from FY 2020 family-based preferences will be used for employment-based category in FY 2021 up to the highest recent level of approximately 220,000 in FY 2005. Get the data. Created with Datawrapper.

The items "Get the data" and "Datawrapper" are links. The second column in the table shows seven subcategories of legal immigration in 2016, and the third and the fourth columns deals with projections for the upcoming fiscal year.

What happens when you click on the two links? "Get the data" produces an Excel spread sheet with exactly the same numbers as in the table. The "Datawrapper" link is an advertisement for that firm.

The casual reader might assume, given the lack of specificity about which numbers are related to what source, that the projections were the product of some kind of collaboration between DHS and what appears to be an independent body, the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

Not so. I determined that the second column in the Anderson table is drawn from Table 7 of the 2016 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, a DHS publication. The projections are from p. 18 of an earlier NFAP report.

And who is NFAP's executive director? Why, it is one Stuart Anderson.

While his author description at the bottom of the article does mention he heads NFAP, the article itself not only doesn't say that, he actually quotes the report he's writing about without noting that he himself is the author of the report, and thus quoting himself, not some outside authority. An honest column would at least have included something like, "As I wrote in a recent NFAP report...."