On E.J. Dionne's "Buying Time on Immigration"

By Stephen Steinlight on May 12, 2009

Before giving E.J. Dionne two cheers for the quotient of candor in his Washington Post column "Buying Time on Immigration," plus three cheers for calling for greater decency in the immigration debate, and a well deserved rap on the knuckles for playing fast and loose with data, it is worth noting a broad rhetorical shift in the media reflected in his column. This change has been introduced into writing and speaking about immigration policy so quietly and ubiquitously it's easy to miss. "Immigration reform" has become the standard euphemism and current newspeak for evidently passé "comprehensive immigration reform." For those of us that oppose the policy – whatever it's called – there's reason for a modicum of satisfaction given this reflects the other side having figured out it's pushing a highly unpopular policy.

Like advertisers putting a better descriptor on a lousy or awful sounding product, the pro-open borders mainstream media resorts to the magic of nominalism: change the name and hope you can change the perception of the thing (see "previously owned" for "used" or "tuna" for "horse mackerel"). Perhaps a focus group or solitary journalist or policy wonk with the common touch figured out "comprehensive" is far too explicit in denoting the transformational social engineering it entails. So they've settled for the homier, less threatening "reform."

What parts of Dionne's piece are most forthright? At a time when supporters of Obama's long-anticipated big push on "immigration reform" already claim to see the smokescreen sent up by the ships of the invasion fleet just over the horizon (especially members of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus), Dionne correctly dampens their enthusiasm by noting the President's unwillingness to hit the beaches anytime soon and risk defeat in the minefields of immigration policy. The op-ed also makes important distinctions frequently lost in the heat of the issue: support for or opposition to "immigration reform" doesn't break along traditional partisan lines; and as important as the Hispanic vote was seen to have been in Obama's victory, the swing states in which its votes made a difference are balanced by other key swing states where it did not. In terms of how much priority the Administration will attach to "immigration reform," Dionne also plays it straight. He reports that Obama's leading advisor, Rahm Emmanuel, is consummately… practical. It was one thing to talk of swift progress when capturing competitive districts with significant Hispanic voting blocs was critical; it is quite another to see things from a "national perspective," to employ the euphemistic parlance, including the protection of Democrats seats in areas in which "immigration reform" is decidedly unpopular.

Finally, very much to his credit, Dionne seeks to civilize the often ugly debate over this third rail issue by calling on "immigration reformers" to cease demonizing opponents as xenophobes or racists. Whether this recommendation is ultimately self-interested or not is beside the point: it is very welcome.

But where he errs egregiously is by not controlling his impulse to fudge figures when it comes to the public's attitudes towards amnesty. Polls are favorite weapons in both sides' arsenals in the immigration wars, and rarely have there been so many push-polls and so much politicization of data as in "survey research" on immigration. This propensity is especially strong on the open-borders side, and even a good journalist can't resist. Who can forget that all-time journalistic low when anticipating the vote on S.1639, the New York Times published the findings of its own push poll on amnesty as front-page news stories in a transparent effort to persuade wavering, risk-averse senators the public backed the bill?

Dionne's attitude about numbers is so cavalier it doesn't even rise to the level of equivocating about actual data: he apparently is brazen enough to make it up from whole cloth and his editors are prepared to print it. Like Gaul in Caesar's Commentaries, Dionne categorically asserts all America can be divided into three parts with regard to attitudes towards "immigration reform:" a third strongly supports it; another third strongly opposes it, and a third is uncertain. It's just that simple – or is it? He provides nothing in the way of survey research to support this nifty, neat division. In fact, he cites no evidence of any sort from any source – giving this "analysis" the air of gut instinct, political prejudice, or pure wind masquerading as sociological fact. "Take it all on faith from me," he might as well say, as though making a caricature personal assertion of Papal Infallibility. Furthermore, findings from real survey data tell a decidedly different story. Let us remember all the mainstream media has permitted the American public to know about "immigration reform" is amnesty, which surveys show to be staggeringly unpopular. If the public knew more, if it were aware, for example, that a central component of all three defeated "immigration reform" bills was exponentially increased immigration, they'd be even more hostile. Again, authentic survey data tells us only a tiny fraction thinks immigration is too low, less than 10% and sometimes as low as 2%. But as Lady Susan says in the conclusion to the eponymous epistolary novel by Jane Austen, "Facts are such horrid things."

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations refers to immigration as the "perfect policy storm" because no other public policy so sharply divides elite and average opinion. The last time the Senate voted on one of these bills, S.1639, was on June 28, 2007. All 23 senators from both sides of the aisle who jumped ship and switched their votes at the 11th hour to oppose it were up for re-election. Even though the president, Senate leadership of both parties, the mainstream media, corporate America, the foundation world, big religion, the academy, etc. all supported it, the senators, more adept at vote-counting than all the pollsters combined, listened to the outraged voices of ordinary Americans and derailed it. Even with only a small amount of information to go on (the product of bad mainstream coverage, not the Evil Geniuses at Fox or Lou Dobbs) they were able not only to read between the lines but also to intuit what was written on the missing pages. Yet every bogus survey kept showing the identical 59% supporting amnesty right up to the bitter end: the roll call vote.

The pollsters fooled themselves and their clients with push-polls that elicited cooked findings meant to validate the supposed popularity of a "path to citizenship" for those lurking in the shadows – but at the price of concealing popular sentiment. Immigration push-polls are faulty dilemmas. Respondents get two bad alternatives, and must choose the lesser of two evils. Data show most Americans abhor amnesty but are horrified by the other choice: wholesale deportation. That unrealistic choice conjures images of Nazis hauling Jews to concentration camps. Anguish about that chimera leads respondents to select amnesty.

More honest polling provides a non-draconian alternative allowing opponents of amnesty to register their sentiments. (See here, here, and here.) That choice, termed "attrition," which gets support from two-thirds to three-quarters of respondents every time it is offered and invariably trumps amnesty, is strict border control and vigorous enforcement of immigration law to cause the incremental self-deportation of the illegal population.

This isn't the only time Mr. Dionne has been engaged in disseminating inaccurate information with regard to the attitudes of the American people about "comprehensive immigration reform." This predilection was on full public display back on September 28, 2008, at a seminar in Washington sponsored by the Brookings Institution on media and the politics of "comprehensive immigration reform." (I attended.) He played a leading role in this effort, not merely as a panelist but as one of five contributors to an expensively produced if completely unbalanced, intellectually suspect report (despite all its impressive graphs and charts) titled Report on the Media and the Immigration Debate. The title of the first of the two sections gives it all away: "The Triumph of No: How the Media Influence the Immigration Debate." The unstated but guiding premise – or intellectual straitjacket – of the proceedings and publication is that "comprehensive immigration reform" is a glorious goal to achieve, but that somehow the "media" made a mess of things by getting in the way of its realization.

The meeting – which devoted no time at all to mainstream media's absolute solidarity on the issue, one so total as to suggest conspiracy to the more paranoid though it actually reflects little more than implicit elitist agreement – quickly became a hate-fest aimed at the new alternative media such as cable TV and talk radio. Some scapegoat had to be found for the failure of "comprehensive immigration reform." Surely, without the nefarious influence of Fox and Lou Dobbs, "comprehensive immigration reform" would have won hands down. Alone among the panelists, it was left to Mark Krikorian to point out that there had been no misadventure, no crisis to which to respond, no bizarre conclusion which defied all reason: what happened was that the American people registered their profound anger about the key provisions of "comprehensive immigration reform": amnesty for some 12 million illegal aliens, passivity in the face of the wholesale violation of the rule of law, and a one-way surrender of American sovereignty. The outcome, against stacked odds, was a victory for American democracy.

As an afterward of sorts, it should be noted the Report on the Media and the Immigration Debate summarized only the findings of surveys on immigration by Gallup – all of which are classic immigration push polls – as well as those of the Pew Hispanic Center, without any critical analysis of how these instruments arrive at their predictable, monolithic findings. In a conversation with Mr. Dionne at the conclusion of the panel, I learned he was totally unaware of the other immigration polling referenced above and the word "attrition" was new to his vocabulary. Having only just helped prepare what was characterized as an exhaustive study of media analysis and immigration surveys, it was a shock to find out he had never heard of polls that offer respondents the opportunity to choose attrition rather than the polar extremes of chimerical mass deportation or the much-detested amnesty.

If I were equally at sea regarding public attitudes towards immigration and the instruments used or misused to report it, but wished or were required to write about it in such a way as to reinforce a policy preference – perhaps I, too, would be tempted to invent data myself. And why not three parts? It worked beautifully – and memorably – for Caesar. But my unhappy memories of high school Latin, if not some higher motive, would restrain me.

If you enjoyed this blog, check out Impure Meat, Foul Ethics, Rotten Arguments or Multicultural Racism or Real Immigration Reform? Thomas L. Friedman’s Curious Times Op-Ed.