Single-Paragraph 'Fact-Check' Resolves Longstanding Economics Debate

By Jason Richwine on October 6, 2016

During Tuesday's vice presidential debate, Mike Pence said the Clinton-Kaine ticket supports immigration policies that are "driving wages down in this country." The ABC News fact-checker, applying its infinite wisdom to a longstanding debate in the economics profession, declared this claim "mostly false".

I have always had a low opinion of the fact-check movement, since the supposedly objective fact-checkers are influenced by the same biases that reporters bring to other types of news. (See here and here for some delightful skewerings of the fact-checkers by Mark Hemingway.) But this time ABC News has gone beyond merely dressing up its opinions as fact. Every sentence of this fact-check is false, misleading, or vague. Start with its citation of the recent National Academies study on immigration:

Immigrants have "little to no negative effects" on the wages or employment of native-born workers in the United States, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences.

Wrong. The study's authors are very open to the idea that immigration depresses wages. For example, the fourth chapter of the study is devoted to an economic model in which immigration improves efficiency by reducing the wages of native-born workers by $494 billion. The next chapter lists nine different studies that find at least some negative wage effects, mostly on lower-skilled workers. "While many studies conclude that, economy-wide, the impact of immigration on average wages and employment is small, a high degree of consensus exists that specific groups are more vulnerable than others to inflows of new immigrants," the study says. It goes on to name prior immigrants and low-skill natives as examples of groups hardest hit.

The "little to no negative effects" on wages is not even a quote from the study itself, but rather from a press release accompanying it. And ABC's fact-checker leaves out a crucial qualifier in that press release: "little to no negative the long term" (emphasis added). It is true that as capital adjusts over time to accommodate a new group of immigrants, wages should revert to pre-immigration levels. This is actually an assumption built into some immigration models. Efficiency gains as well as wage effects disappear in those models in the long run, leaving natives no better off than they were without immigration. But, more importantly, if we keep taking in over a million immigrants every year, then new short-run wage losses are suffered over and over, and the long run never comes!

The National Academies study simply does not say, either literally or in spirit, that immigration has no effect on wages. Furthermore, the conceit that such a sweeping and decisive "fact" could be derived from the study's chapter-length, much-caveated review of a complex literature is implausible.

Back to ABC's fact-checker:

The researchers found little evidence to support the notion that immigrants take jobs away from native workers. When looking at those with a high school degree or less, the report found: "the difference in employment ratios between immigrant and native-born men is due mainly to differences in labor force participation and not to unemployment."

Far from establishing the "fact" that immigrants do not harm native employment, this argument is not even relevant to the issue. Clearly immigration could depress wages enough that natives drop out of the labor force altogether rather than stand in unemployment lines. There is much debate on this question, of course, but drawing a distinction between unemployment (no job, looking for work) and labor-force dropout (no job, not looking for work) does little to resolve it.

Finally, here is the fact-checker's argument about border security, in full:

And it is hard to say there is a current policy of open borders because the border is more secure than it has been in U.S. history.

Such a grandiose-yet-vague statement would find a good home on a politician's list of talking points, so fact-checking this fact-checker's claim would be difficult. One place to start would be what happens to people apprehended at our border. According to Brandon Judd, head of the Border Patrol agents' union, around 80 percent of the apprehended are simply released into the U.S., some with little more than a Notice to Appear at an immigration hearing. Without the political will to enforce our laws, even a lavishly-funded Border Patrol cannot make the nation secure.

For in-depth discussions of the National Academies study mentioned above, please see Steven Camarota's overview and my summary of the long-term fiscal effects.