Why Media Shouldn't Rely On Sen. Jeff Sessions' Immigration Reform Claims


Now that the Republican Party has settled on a set of principles to guide its action on immigration reform, media outlets have turned to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as a credible source on immigration reform, validating his arguments that reform will slow U.S. economic recovery and further depress Americans' wages. These talking points, however, have been repeatedly discredited as experts agree that immigration reform would have a positive impact on the economy and Americans' wages.

As The Washington Post reported, Republican leaders released a list of "principles" on immigration reform, declaring that "there would be 'no special path' to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but that, in general, they should be allowed to 'live legally and without fear' in the United States if they meet a list of tough requirements and rules." The statement concluded that "none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced."

In reporting on the debate, media are validating Sessions' bogus economic arguments against reform. Discussing the issue on Fox News, for example, contributor Tucker Carlson highlighted Sessions' arguments, saying that Sessions is "no liberal and is not either some kind of fiery demagogue populist" and that "he's making an intellectual case against more immigration in a down economy."

CBS News similarly highlighted an "analysis" by Sessions, reporting that it "said increasing the number of immigrants would hurt an already weak economy, lower wages and increase unemployment. He cited White House adviser Gene Sperling's comment earlier this month that the economy has three people looking for every job opening." The article continued:

He said the House Republican leaders' plan that's taking shape would grant work permits almost immediately to those here illegally, giving them a chance to compete with unemployed Americans for any job. He said it would lead to a surge in the future flow of unskilled workers and would provide amnesty to a larger number of immigrants in the country illegally, giving them a chance to apply for citizenship through green cards.

Politico also quoted Sessions' criticism that the GOP proposal "provides the initial grant of amnesty before enforcement; it would surge the already unprecedented level of legal lesser-skilled immigration to the U.S. that is reducing wages and increasing unemployment; and it would offer eventual citizenship to a large number of illegal immigrants and visa overstays."

In fact, Sessions' arguments are actually repackaged talking points from anti-immigrant groups and, as the libertarian Cato Institute noted, "are based on misinterpretations of government reports, cherry-picked findings by organizations that engage in statistical chicanery, or just flat-out incorrect." Cato, which released a point-by-point rebuttal of many of Sessions' claims, added that his assertions "do not advance a logical argument against immigration."

Indeed, like Cato, numerous experts agree that immigration reform would improve the economic recovery. 

In fact, the state Sessions represents, Alabama, would see a nearly $31 million surplus in state and local tax contributions, according to one study. Another estimated that if reform expanded the high-skilled visa program, the state's economy would increase by $140 million in a year and by $1.5 billion by 2045.

One of the most persistent arguments from Sessions against immigration reform is that it will increase unemployment at a time when we "have the lowest percentage of Americans actually working today than since 1975," as he stated on Fox News recently.

This is, however, a fundamental misunderstanding of the critical role immigration plays in a country's economic future. Indeed, economists repeatedly argue that it is because of this factor that the United States should undertake comprehensive immigration reform.

As The Washington Post has explained, a "key reason" for the decline in the labor force is "the retirement of the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation," which accounted for "just over half of the post-1999 decline in the participation rate." The Post added:

Critically, the research showed that the problem is only going to get worse in the rest of the decade, with retirements accounting for two-thirds of the decline of participation rate by 2020. In other words, the rate will keep declining, no matter how well the economy does.

Barclays economists have stated that "only a third of the drop in the labor force participation rate is accounted for by those who say they want a job, and only about 15% by those who want a job and are also of prime working age (ie, 25-54)."

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics data reportedly shows that "the country will offer 3.6 million new jobs in low-wage sectors such as health care, food service, construction and janitorial services. But there will only be 1.7 million new American workers between ages 25-54 entering the workforce."

Indeed, it's instructive to remember what happened in Alabama following the enactment there of a restrictive immigration law, which drove many undocumented immigrants from the state. As the Post reported in June 2012:

No one really knows how many of the state's estimated 180,000 illegal immigrants have left or been replaced, but the rash of criticism from employers that depend on immigrant labor was so intense by this spring that [Scott] Beason, the state senator, sponsored a revised version of the law to ease penalties for businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

A study by the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Alabama estimated that the 2011 law could have resulted "in a $10.8 billion loss to the state's GDP, mostly due to reduced demand for goods and services provided by Alabama businesses." 

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