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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Puffed-up Appeal to Job Fears

A TV ad opposing the Senate immigration bill uses inflated numbers in an oversimplified, one-sided appeal to fears about job security.

The ad claims that Congress is considering “adding 33 million foreign job seekers” when 20 million Americans can’t find a job. Both those numbers are inflated and misleading.

Furthermore, the ad is silent on the offsetting economic benefits of immigration. And it appeals to fear, showing anxious faces in stark black-and-white images, while the narrator says “young adults are wondering if they’ll ever be financially independent.”

The 30-second spot is from Numbers USA, a nonprofit group that advocates for stricter limits on immigration. It has run in 16 states since the Memorial Day weekend, and is still on the air in several of them, a Numbers USA spokesman told us. The organization won’t say how much it has spent so far, or how much it has budgeted.

20 Million Unemployed?

The ad’s narrator starts by saying, “Jobs — 20 million of our friends, family and neighbors still can’t find one.” That’s not true.

The ad cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as the source, but the most recent BLS report, released June 7, says the true number of unemployed job seekers was 11.8 million in May.

So where does the puffed-up 20 million figure come from? Numbers USA is including 7.9 million persons who actually have jobs but according to BLS are “employed part time for economic reasons,” either because their hours have been cut back or because they are unable to find a full-time job. It would be fair to call these persons “underemployed,” but it’s not accurate to say they can’t find a job at all.

Taken together, the jobless and the underemployed total 19.7 million.

The Numbers USA ad — in tiny print on screen — cites the BLS “U-6” measure, one of several “alternative measures of labor utilization.” The U-6 figure also counts — in addition to unemployed and underemployed persons — all persons “marginally attached to the labor force.” Those 2.2 million persons said they wanted work but hadn’t actually looked for a job in the past four weeks.

Either way, it’s padding the numbers to add in those who have a job, or those who aren’t looking for one, as being among those who “can’t find” work.

Adding 33 Million Job Seekers?

The ad pads the numbers even more by claiming that the bill would be “adding 33 million foreign job seekers,” as it says in a graphic.

The narrator pound the point home: “[W]hy is Congress talking about giving 33 million new work permits to foreign job seekers?” he asks. “What kind of reform brings in more foreign job seekers when what 20 million Americans really need is more jobs?”

That’s misleading on several counts.

To start, a third of those 33 million are already here and many are already working, so the immigration bill wouldn’t be “adding” them or bringing them in. Furthermore, not all of those already here are “job seekers.” An estimated 1.3 million are children under age 18.

Numbers USA breaks down its 33 million figure on its website, saying the Senate bill would give work permits to 11 million immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. illegal. Actually, the most recent estimate by the Department of Homeland Security put the “unauthorized immigrant population” at 11.51 million — but not all of them are working or seeking work. DHS estimated 1.32 million of them are children under the age of 18, for one thing. In addition, some unknown portion of that population is made up of stay-at-home parents and persons who are disabled, retired or otherwise unemployed. DHS made no attempt to estimate how many of the 11.5 million are actually working or seeking work.

The 33 million figure is also puffed up by the inclusion of 11 million immigrants whom Numbers USA figures would come in — legally, and over the next decade — under “a continuation of the current system.” Even if that turned out to be accurate (and we have no ability to predict the future) it would not come as a result of the Senate bill the ad criticizes.

Numbers USA also includes 5 million relatives of persons who are currently waiting for permission to enter the U.S. — also unrelated to the current bill.

The 33 million figure includes only 6 million “new immigrants” who would gain legal status in the next 10 years, through “new categories and expanded existing categories” of legal immigration.

If that’s an accurate number, the ad would be be justified in saying that the Senate legislation would be adding an estimated 6 million new foreign job seekers over the next 10 years — not 33 million.

Economic Benefits

There’s no disputing that many — though not all — new immigrants seek work in the U.S. But it’s equally true that they also become buyers of U.S. goods and services, and some of them even become business owners, and employers. The Numbers USA ad is one-sided and oversimplified by totally ignoring these benefits.

Proponents of the legislation argue, in fact, that the net effect would be to increase U.S. employment, and wages. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill May 21 by a bipartisan vote of 13 to 5, later released its official report on the measure, citing studies that said immigrants are disproportionately likely to start small businesses and to patent new innovations, that they started 28 percent of all new U.S. businesses in 2011, and that small businesses owned by immigrants employed 4.7 million people in 2007.

Moreover, the Senate report said: “One recent study found that over the period from 1990 to 2006, immigration increased average wages for native workers by 0.6 percent and had essentially no effect or a positive effect on the wages of even the least-educated U.S.-born workers.” And indeed, when we checked the actual study cited by the Senate report, we found it said “natives as a whole gain 0.6% of their average wage” as a result of immigration. The report, by a researcher at the Department of Economics at the University of California’s Davis campus, also found that native workers who lacked a high school education experienced at worst a wage loss of 0.1 percent, and perhaps a gain of as much as 0.6 percent.

The study also found a substantial negative impact on the wages of previous immigrants, who lost a full 6 percent. That point isn’t mentioned in the Senate report. That omission by proponents of the bill amounts to putting a favorable gloss on a somewhat mixed study. But we find that spin to be a trifle compared to the inaccurate, inflated and emotionally charged claims made by the Numbers USA spot.

–Brooks Jackson