PBS Segment On Economic Impact Of Immigration Reform Fails Viewers

A day after yet another comprehensive fact-check poked holes into a study from the conservative Heritage Foundation on the costs of immigration reform, PBS' NewsHour aired a segment with the study's co-author in which it treated the report's conclusions as legitimate. But as experts and conservatives have noted, there is nothing remotely sound about the study's methodology, which renders its conclusion that reform would cost $6.3 trillion invalid.

On June 4, FactCheck.org published a definitive fact-check of the Heritage study that outlined several problems with the report's underlying assumptions, including the fact that the report is not an analysis of the bill currently being debated in the Senate.

FactCheck noted that one of the report's authors, Robert Rector, has admitted that “some aspects of the bill, such as increasing green cards or legal permanent residence visas for high-skill workers, would likely lower the cost projection.” Other problems it identified included:

  • “by the report's own estimate, the net cost - compared with the cost of doing nothing -- could be far less than $6.3 trillion or even $5.3 trillion”
  • the Heritage estimate is over a 50-year period, which “economists warn that projecting costs over such a long period is highly speculative -- it assumes no changes in the already unsustainable Social Security or Medicare programs, for example”
  • “Heritage used less optimistic assumptions than the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office did when it projected the cost of a similar immigration plan in 2007,” which concluded that the bill would have had a “relatively small net effect on the federal budget” over 20 years
  • the “report counts the cost of benefits paid to the children of those living in the U.S. illegally, even though many of those children by law are citizens”

But on the June 5 edition of PBS' NewsHour, Rector's wild conclusions were treated with credibility. Host Ray Suarez introduced the discussion -- which also featured Center for American Progress visiting fellow Robert Lynch -- as a debate on the “contrasting views on what immigration reform would cost, and whether it would help or hurt the U.S. economy.”

However, not once did the host admit that the Heritage study has been thoroughly discredited or that the consensus among economists is that immigration is a net benefit for the economy. Instead, viewers were treated to a he said/he said discussion between Rector and Lynch in which both outlined their respective views on the issue, but gave no indication as to who had the more accurate information.

In an editorial about the study for example, The Boston Globe wrote:

Why did an organization that was once considered a center of the conservative intellectual universe issue a report that even Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi governor, called “a political document . . . not a very serious analysis”?

The Heritage report, which seems aimed more at inflaming talk-radio audiences than furthering an honest debate, is a sad milestone in the organization's decline -- the bookend of the group's long downward slide into partisanship. It's part of a disturbing trend not just for conservatives, but for the country that would benefit from the serious work the foundation once produced.

In his New York Times column, Bill Keller reported that “Tim Kane, the Heritage analyst who had prepared the earlier, immigration-is-good report and is now chief economist at the Hudson Institute, said former colleagues at Heritage now worry that the new report will cast doubt on their other scholarship.” He went on to write:

I'm not an economist (and neither is Robert Rector, the principal author of the new report), but I've discussed the analysis with six economists, some of them specialists in immigration policy, four of them staunch conservatives. Their consensus is that the report issued last week is not an objective quest for enlightenment, but 100 pages in service of a boldface headline. (SIX POINT THREE TRILLION DOLLARS!) It systematically overestimates the percentage of undocumented immigrants who will get citizenship, and exaggerates the likelihood that they will end up as wards of the welfare state. It underestimates the contribution these immigrants and their children will make to the country's wealth if they are allowed out of the shadows to work and study and open businesses without fear. It plays down the reality that these immigrants already cost taxpayers many millions. And it assumes that for the duration of this supposed pig-out at the federal trough -- 50 years is Rector's time frame -- nothing much changes in government policy.

A PBS article previewing the discussion also failed to provide an understanding of the economic facts surrounding reform, though it included the views of American Action Forum President and former Congressional Budget Office head Doug Holtz-Eakin. PBS further failed to mention, either in the segment or in the article, that both Lynch and Holtz-Eakin have criticized the Heritage study, along with a number of other prominent conservatives and groups like the Cato Institute and the American Action Forum.

More importantly, the scandal surrounding the authorship of the study - which included the resignation of Jason Richwine, the study's other author, amid accusations of racial bias -- went unmentioned.

PBS' choice to leave out these details is puzzling given that during a May 10 segment on immigration, host Judy Woodruff brought up the study and acknowledged its failings. During the discussion, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson noted that it “was a shoddy study, and there was an immediate, comprehensive response of a bunch of conservative, pro-immigration reform groups.” Woodruff then mentioned Richwine's part in the study, including his past writings “that talked about lower IQs among individuals who were Hispanic and lingering for generations.” She added: “Now I gather the person behind that has left the foundation.” Syndicated columnist Mark Shields also noted criticism from other conservatives, including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Rep. Paul Ryan.