May 1 2006

Birth of a Factoid

[Note: This piece is a sidebar to “The False Debate Over ‘Broken Borders’.”]

Coverage of a recent study by Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center on undocumented immigrants in the United States (3/7/06) illustrates how facts are constructed in the immigration debate. The organization’s website states that the report provides “an estimate of 11.5 to 12 million [unauthorized migrants] as of March 2006,” based on a comparison of Census and Department of Homeland Security data combined with statistical projections.

The three-page executive summary of the report—available on the web—prominently states that “some migrants in this estimate have legal authorization to live and work in the United States on a temporary basis. . . . Together they may account for as much as 10 percent of the estimate.” In other words, his estimate of actual undocumented immigrants may be as low as 10.4 million people. Additionally, Passel also states that a large number of these individuals are people who have overstayed a visa—in and of itself, not currently a crime—making Passel’s uses the phrase “unauthorized migrants” more appropriate than “illegal immigrants.”

Nonetheless, a number of prominent outlets took this information and reported it as an estimate of 12 million “illegal immigrants.” The San Francisco Chronicle article on the report (3/7/06) was headlined “Estimate: Illegal Immigrant Population in Country Hits 12 Million.” A later article in the Chronicle (3/17/06) twice dropped the qualifications, referring to “the 12 million illegal immigrants” in the United States as not an estimate but a fact. Numerous other outlets used the 12 million figure, including AP (3/7/06), Reuters (Washington Post, 3/16/06), Los Angeles Times (3/9/06) and NPR’s All Things Considered (3/7/06).

Unfortunately, despite being a skewed presentation of Passel’s report—itself only an attempt to estimate a number extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to pin down— this new figure has been repeated enough times to have become a media fact.