Dan Stein is getting to be a familiar face on cable news. The president of the “Federation for American Immigration Reform,” Stein is often invited to appear on cable and talk radio as an expert on issues relating to border security and illegal immigration.
Stein is most popular on CNN, where he has so appeared, or been quoted, over 90 times since 2000. Just last year, Stein made 12 separate appearances on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” to discuss immigration, and several more with Glenn Beck, where he praised the host as “so, so absolutely on point” on immigration.
What CNN viewers were never told is that aside from simply being an aggressive anti-immigration organization, FAIR is also listed as a hate group with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its representatives have long expressed controversial anti-Latino and anti-Catholic attitudes, and some key officials are members of white supremacist groups. What’s more, the organization has proudly taken $1.2 million from a racist eugenics foundation that was established to “promote the racial stock of the original colonists.”
Stein’s presence on cable news—and on Dobbs’ and Beck’s shows in particular—needs to be understood in the context of a rapid rise in the amount of vitriol that is increasingly allowed to infect our public discourse via the immigration issue in general and cable news in particular. Media Matters (where, disclosure, I am also a senior fellow), has just completed an important study, “Fear and Loathing in Prime Time: Immigration Myths and Cable News,” that focuses on the shows of Bill O’Reilly, Beck, and Dobbs. The study found that: “On their eponymous programs, [these three] serve up a steady diet of fear, anger, and resentment on the topic of illegal immigration.”
The study documents a range of falsehoods presented on these programs; they range from stretching the truth regarding the relationship between immigration and taxes to outright lies about an alleged North American Union that would unite Canada, the United States, and Mexico. This aggressive misinformation campaign according to the study’s authors, “feed[s] viewers’ resentment and fears, [and is] seemingly geared toward creating anti-immigrant hysteria.”
For example, any casual viewer of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” should be familiar with the host’s frequent tirades about crime caused by illegal immigrants—an issue particularly well-suited to stir up fear and anger amongst viewers. Dobbs often highlights crimes committed by illegal immigrants on his program, and in October 2006 alleged that “just about a third of the prison population in this country is estimated to be illegal aliens.”
More than half of the discussions about illegal immigration on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” involve mentions of crime, and Dobbs mentioned crime together with illegal immigration on 94 different shows last year. Bill O’Reilly raised the issue 66 times last year, and Beck 29 times.
Evidence is never in plentiful supply on cable shout-fests, but it is particularly lacking in these cases. One 2005 study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Michigan found that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens. Another study, which examined data from the U.S. Census Bureau, found that among men aged 18 to 39, the incarceration rate for native-born citizens is five times higher than for the foreign-born individuals. This held true within ethnic and national-origin groups; native-born Latinos, for example, were more likely to be incarcerated than foreign-born Latinos.
Robert J. Sampson, chairman of Harvard’s sociology department, told Media Matters that this data shows that undocumented immigrants are in fact “disproportionately less likely to be involved in many acts of deviance, crime, drunk driving, any number of things that sort of imperil our well-being.”
Facts and evidence aside, America is portrayed every night as living in the midst of an invasion. “The chief of police in the small town under siege by the pro-illegal alien open borders lobby says his community is being overrun by criminal illegal aliens and drug gangs,” Dobbs told viewers in March 2007. Michelle Malkin, filling in for Bill O’Reilly in August 2007, warned of “The never-ending criminal alien revolving door…Another heinous crime, another illegal alien suspect with a mile-long rap sheet, another bloody tragedy wrought by open borders.”
Another popular myth woven by Dobbs et al is that illegal immigrants have created a drain on America’s economy by consuming a disproportionate amount of social services, while failing to pay taxes. “I also know our country is on fire, and the fuel is illegal immigration,” Glenn Beck told viewers in January 2007. “They put a strain on our Social Security, our education, our health care, and yes, national security.”
During a May 2007 show, Bill O’Reilly informed a UCLA professor that “Low-skilled immigrant labor costs the taxpayers today $19,000… [E]ach of us pay $19,000 to supplement people who are using the hospitals, the education system.” When the professor telegraphed his amazement at O’Reilly’s gumption, O’Reilly erupted: “Don’t shake your head. These are rock-solid stats.”
Alas, perhaps in Bill O’Reilly’s universe these outlandish claims counts as “rock solid.” In the place the rest of us call “reality,” we note that the conservative think tank he was citing actually argued that each illegal immigrant costs the government—not the individual taxpayer—$19,000. And even that is a ridiculous statistic since it ignores the money that illegal immigrants contribute to the economy and tax system.
Contrary to popular belief, illegal immigrants pay all kinds of taxes—they pay sales taxes whenever they purchase goods and services, they pay property taxes in the form of rent, and they pay payroll and income taxes. Even if they use a false Social Security number to obtain employment, these workers then pay payroll taxes and often federal and state income taxes, as well, through paycheck withholding.
The New York Times reported in 2005 that the Social Security Administration estimates that three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes, adding as much as $7 billion in Social Security taxes a year to federal coffers, and another $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes. This is basically free money for the government, or at least for the Social Security and Medicare programs because, of course, undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for any of those benefits. And since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was passed in 1996, even documented immigrants are ineligible for most forms of public assistance until they achieve citizenship.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office even found in 2007 that “Over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants—both legal and unauthorized—exceed the cost of the services they use. Generally, such estimates include revenues and spending at the federal, state, and local levels. However, many estimates also show that the cost of providing public services to unauthorized immigrants at the state and local levels exceeds what that population pays in state and local taxes.”
When these cable news programs warn that illegal immigrants place a financial drain on the government, but they are usually citing flawed studies or amplifying the admittedly unenviable costs placed on some local governments by illegal immigrants.
Where Dobbs, O’Reilly, and Beck are on even shakier ground, if that’s possible, is when they devolve into a discussion of an imaginary “NAFTA Superhighway”—supposedly a plan to construct a superhighway to link Mexico with Canada without rigorous border security checks. This plan, it is argued, is the first step toward creating a North American Union among the United States, Canada, and Mexico designed to cede U.S. sovereignty to a supranational body like the European Union.
It’s nuts, for sure, but this hasn’t stopped Dobbs, Beck, and O’Reilly from flogging the issue relentlessly. Dobbs’ program has even discussed an alleged “reconquista” plan for Mexico to take back the southwestern United States on nine separate occasions, often tying the nutty notion to the mainstream pro-immigration movement. “Long downplayed as a theory of the radical ethnic fringe, the la reconquista, the reconquest, the reclamation, the return, it’s resonating with some on the streets,” correspondent Christine Romans reported on that show. “[T]he growing street protests in favor of illegal immigration, Lou, are increasingly taking on the tone of that very radicalism.”
On the October 2, 2007, edition of “Glenn Beck,” the host seemed to truly enjoy the perceived absurdity of his claims, Media Matters notes. “Nobody is talking about it,” he said. “It’s a giant roadway that will run across the United States connecting Canada and Mexico. Why is no one talking about it?” (Um, because we’re not crazy, Glenn. Why is CNN letting you do it? )
This flood of misinformation and fear mongering is not being broadcast into a vacuum—resentment against illegal immigration is reaching dangerous levels. The number of hate groups in the United States has increased by half since 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “driven largely by anti-immigrant hysteria.”
Nevertheless, the cable bosses allow this vitriol to be broadcast on an almost nightly basis, and the rest of the media has not yet taken notice or spoken out. Rather, the Politico’s Mike Allen is worried that former Bush administration Press Secretary Scott McClellan has adopted “the vocabulary, rhetoric” of “haters”—that is, the majority of the nation who oppose the war, oppose the administration, and want nothing to do with this kind of fear mongering. But that’s another story….
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.