Musings on Migration Statistics

By David North on May 25, 2011

Judge Mark H. Metcalf's new CIS Backgrounder, "Built to Fail: Deception and Disorder in America's Immigration Courts", reminds me that the four cabinet departments dealing with international migration have totally different ways of handling migration statistics, two in deplorable ways, and two in a more or less acceptable manner.

Department of Justice: Misleading
While the annual report of DoJ's Executive Office of Immigration Review is jammed full of numbers, it is, as Judge Metcalf points out, full of misleading ones. The general pattern he reports (after years with that agency) is that it uses statistical manipulation to downplay its problems.

For example, not showing up for a court date is pretty rare in most American courts, as it gets the no-show into immediate trouble. There is no comparable downside for an alien in the immigration courts and unexcused absences are all too common, as Judge Metcalf points out, but you can hardly recognize that by reading EOIR statistics.

What happens is that the population that has an opportunity to stand up the judges (non-detained aliens) are mixed in with the detained aliens in the published data; the latter, of course, have no option of not going to court. So while 32 percent of the at-large aliens do not show up in court, EOIR's (juggled) statistics show, for 2009, that the failure to appear rate was only 11 percent. (See p. 5 of the CIS Backgrounder.)

Similar sleights of hand understate the percentage of aliens winning cases in the courts (Judge Metcalf puts that at 75 percent), and grossly understate the percentage of times that immigration judge decisions negative to aliens are appealed (the judge puts that figure at 98 percent).

Department of Homeland Security: Missing
DHS takes a simpler approach to reporting unhappy numbers. It simply does not publish much in the way of statistics regarding its processes.

The annual Yearbook of Immigration Statistics put out by the Department is an honorable but limited document, dealing with the outcomes of the migration processes, such as the number of new immigrants, the number of naturalizations, and the number of removals. These are results figures and rarely deal with the more policy-oriented field of internal decision-making.

Beyond this document, DHS does not release much data, and CIS is in the middle of a more-than-year-long effort to use the Freedom of Immigration Act (FOIA) to pry some process data from that agency.

An outsider cannot tell currently, for example, how many times the agency says yes and no to corporations and persons seeking various migration petitions, either on an individual or a collective basis. Further, sometimes the agency blinds itself to variables it does not want to know about. Inside one of its foreign worker programs, the one for churches (R-1), the agency will not even record the names of the denominations abusing the program, and thus cannot tell from its own secret, internal systems whether or not one faith is abusing the program more than others, as certainly is the case. (See an earlier blog of mine on this peculiar alien worker program.)

Department of Labor: Massive
In contrast to DoJ and DHS, DoL publishes massive amounts of migration data, most of which seems to be pretty straightforward. (Disclosure: DoL is one of my almae matres.)

See, for instance, the Foreign Labor Certification Data Center Online Wage Library, and all of its components. For instance, for every H-1B application filed by an employer, you can find out the name and address of the employer, whether the application was accepted or not, the name of the occupation, the number of workers that employer filed for in that case, the wage to be offered, the place of employment, etc., etc.

Department of State: More or less OK
I am less familiar with the DoS data systems than the other three, but my sense is that they are closer to those of Labor than to those of the other two departments.

On the ticklish (to DHS) religious worker visas, for example, FY 2009 data from State's Visa Office showed that at the first level of scrutiny a majority of the R-1 applications were rejected, 3,437 compared to 2,771 initial approvals, the only visa category with such a negative record. There were, however, 1,400 reversals of a set of these denials (though the reversals of the denials did not take necessarily take place in the same fiscal year as the denials themselves) so about 67 percent of the R-1 visas were, in the end, approved. These kinds of refreshing data can be found in this Visa Office table.

Needless to say, no public official announced (nor did the press report) that a majority of the R-1 visas, initially, met this fate. But DoS published the raw data, to its credit.

In contrast to the R-1 data, and using the same table and bearing in mind the same complications of the time periods, more than 97 percent of the applications for top flight diplomatic visas (A-1) were approved. The approval rate for a group between the diplomats at one end of the spectrum, and religious workers (including perhaps alleged religious workers) at the other, we find that F-1 (foreign students) had a net approval rate of about 80 percent.

In the following year the volume of the R-1 applications had fallen, and the quality, apparently, had improved (presumably because of the prior year's restrictions) so that the net approximate approval rate was 92 percent in FY 2010.

A full understanding of how the government runs our migration programs is possible only if these kinds of data are readily available.

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A Happy (Unrelated) Footnote:

The brand-new congresswoman elected in an upset in upstate New York yesterday, Kathy Hochul, has an unusual distinction for a member of the Democratic Party: she does not want the government to document illegal aliens. Buried in the long New York Times account of her victory was a statement that while serving as the elected County Clerk of Erie County she vigorously opposed then-Gov. Elliot Spitzer's attempt to issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens; the governor's efforts on this issue, as well as the governor's term, subsequently collapsed. County Clerks in upstate New York, like Ms. Hochul, have a role in the issuance of driver's licenses.