Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Migration Myths, Journalistic Mistakes: How do Articles Like this Get Printed?

On the front page of MSN today was a link titled "What if All the Illegal Immigrants Went Home". It sounded like an interesting piece so I decided to check it out. Obviously the folks at felt the actual title of the article, "What if we threw out all the illegal immigrants,"was not quite appropriate for the tagline. Once I saw the actual title and checked the credentials of the writer (Shirley Skeel, a "print and radio journalist based in Seattle who has written for Bloomberg News, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph in London. She has also produced radio features for National Public Radio and its affiliates"), I was not sure what I would find. I did a quick google search of Skeel's previous work and found some other less than complimentary commentaries about other Skeel articles here.

While shoddy journalism is nothing new at MSN Money, this articles takes lessons learned from an intro to economics course and attempts to apply them to the real world.
The biggest losers would be middle-class families with two working parents, living in high-immigrant states such as California, Texas, Florida or New York."
What about the twelve million people forcibly displaced? Seems like being tossed back to a variety of countries in Latin America, Europe, and Asia would be more difficult. These workers left for a multitude of reasons (including discrimination), and being forcibly returned would be much worse than someone having to clean their own house. Not to mention that many of those that had to go back to low-income countries would now face extremely difficult circumstance as large numbers of former immigrants would now end up competing for the same jobs that caused them to leave their home country in the first place. Also, the families that would be destroyed by such an event would also be in a worse situation than the guy who has to mow his own lawn. Many families have some family members that are undocumented workers while other members have gained legal status. This could even mean couples being split up and parents separated from children. Skeel touches on the difficulties of deporting so many people, but only as an afterthought (though it seem like the whole article is more of an afterthought, than actual journalism).

Possibly the most insulting part of the article:
"Economists say if [American citizens] agreed to bone meat or install insulation, they could earn 6% to 10% more than the deported workers, as wages rose to lure new workers. That could mean $18,000 to $30,000 in pay a year."
Come on, what "economists" did you speak to? This sort of theoretical armchair economics is the reason most Americans understand so little about how global capital works. These two sentences are riddled with so many problematic and untrue assumptions that it would take more time than I am willing to invest to deconstruct them. However, I will focus on two key points: wage determinants and employment networks.

This statement (and the wider article) makes the fallacious assumption that the "illegal immigrants" are the reason for lower wages. While from a purely theoretical perspective this may seem plausible or even likely, any engagement with the actual literature on wage restructuring points to wider, more structural factors. Aviva Chomsky (2007) notes that wages across the U.S. have either stagnated or declined for low-skill workers, while profits have increased in many sectors. She argues that it is the businesses that target undocumented workers because of their marginal status, which allows companies to treat them abhorrently while not fearing repercussions. This is particularly true in many agricultural industries that rely heavily on undocumented labor. Were they to switch to documented workers with legal rights they would deeply cut into their profits and thus face the wrath of their short-term minded shareholders. This would likely push many companies either to increase their production of goods in other countries (which may not be as profitable as it used to be, due to the high costs of transportation due to higher gas prices) or by directly increasing the prices of goods (something that would create a serious backlash).

For employment networks, most social scientists recognize that it is not simply employment that determines where an individual lives. However, Skeel found someone intellectually lazy enough to believe so (however without evidence, like most researchers at the Heritage Foundation; Rector is a senior research fellow, though research is a strong word for what the Heritage Foundation does)

"Just how quickly would Americans fill the vacated jobs? And at what pay rate? Perryman points to Texas, where he says there are more than 1 million illegal workers, but only 450,000 unemployed residents. 'If you do the math, it just doesn't work,' he says. He doubts that many needy Virginians would move to Texas for often-grueling, low-paying jobs.

Rector disagrees. He says it would take time for 'Cousin Fred' in Texas to phone up his jobless mates in Virginia, but, 'There are a lot of people who work for less than $20,000 a year.' And they would move for a job."

While some people move to find employment, the vast majority of Americans would have no idea where and what types of jobs are available in their own town, even less so in places across the country. The idea put forth by Rector in the above quote relies on the economic ideology that individuals are rational choice robots that have perfect information and are able to weigh the costs and benefits of their decisions. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist, has studied informational asymmetries and notes that these naive assumptions of many economists simply are not supported by research. Calvó-Armengol and Jackson (2004) identify that the importance of social networks in determining opportunities for employment has been well-researched and is overwhelmingly supported. To assume that eight million American citizens (the number it would take to replace the employed undocumented workers, from Skeel's estimates) would pick up and move to take part in unskilled and nonunionized work is just ridiculous.

While such hypothetical articles allow us to think about the difficulties of immigration policy, when as poorly researched as this one, it is hard to see how it adds to the debate. Immigration is a complex issue without simple solutions (as can be seen in nearly all countries), however, using simplistic logic and ignoring previous empirical work will not get us any closer to a solution.


Calvó-Armengol, Antoni, and Matthew O. Jackson. 2004. "The Effects of Social Networks on Employment and Inequality." The American Economic Review 94: 426-454.

Chomsky, A. 2007. They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration. Boston: Beacon Press.