Romney’s problematic claims about illegal immigration in Texas

at 06:00 AM ET, 10/24/2011


(Chris Carlson/AP)
“The fact is we have a huge number of illegals that are coming into this country . . . they’re coming here because there is a magnet. And the magnet is called jobs.”

— Texas Gov. Rick Perry, CNN debate, Oct. 18, 2011

“You put in place a magnet — you talk about magnets — you put in place a magnet to draw illegals into the state, which is giving $100,000 of tuition credit to illegals that come into this country. And then you have states, the big states of illegal immigrants are California and Florida. Over the last 10 years, they’ve had no increase in illegal immigration. Texas has had 60 percent increase in illegal immigrants.”

— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in response

“With regards to the record in Texas, you probably also ought to tell people that if you look over the last several years, 40 percent, almost half, the jobs created in Texas were created for illegal aliens.”

— Romney, later in the debate

We got a bit distracted at the end of last week, debunking dubious GOP and Democratic claims regarding dueling jobs bills. But we want to weigh in on a pair of charges that Mitt Romney threw at Rick Perry during the contentious debate last week in Las Vegas.

Romney obviously came well-prepared with these “facts,” as his campaign immediately e-mailed reporters with specific references to the data that he cited. But the more we looked into his claims, the shakier they became.

Let’s take a look under the hood of these revved-up statistics.

The Facts

The claim that Texas has had a 60 percent increase in illegal immigrants since 2000, compared to no increase in California and Florida, comes from a study by the Department of Homeland Security. At first glance, that appears to give a government imprimatur to Romney’s assertion.

But here’s what what Romney did. He took some basic information — though if you look closely at the study, you discover it provides estimates, not hard data — and then claimed it constituted proof that Texas’s in-state tuition break for illegal immigrants was the reason for the increase. But that’s not what the DHS report says; it makes no mention of tuition breaks.

In fact, as our colleagues at Factcheck.org have pointed out, but Romney did not mention, California has a similar tuition-break program. Meanwhile, Arizona does not — but its illegal population has soared. In other words, it is a phony connection.

Romney has played this sleight of hand before. He earned two Pinocchios for claiming that “good jobs” were created in states with right-to-work laws. Just as with the claim of Perry creating a “magnet” with in-state tuition, there is little or no documented link between those laws and employment statistics.

In this case, Perry was right when he said the “magnet” was jobs.

“Virtually everyone says they are coming for economic reasons,” said Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. “You would be hard pressed to find someone who says they came across the border so their son could go to high school and then they would get in-state college tuition. There is no evidence anyone moves for that reason.”

Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney, said the candidate was using the Homeland Security study to make a larger point about Perry’s record on immigration.

“It’s wrong to assume that Gov. Romney is citing college tuition breaks as the difference between California and Texas — it’s not. Rather, Gov. Romney was drawing attention to Rick Perry’s overall failure on the illegal immigration problem in comparison to the Golden State, both in terms of enforcement and magnets,” he said. “Rick Perry opposes E-Verify [an electronic check of Social Security numbers]. California allowed use of E-Verify until only just recently. Rick Perry historically opposed a border fence. California’s border is heavily fortified with a fence. Rick Perry has been weak on providing proper enforcement resources along the border. California called up the National Guard to secure its border. Rick Perry’s Texas has a reputation as being a welcoming destination for illegal immigrants, making it a magnet in relation to neighboring states with tougher reputations. That combination of failure is why Rick Perry has seen illegal immigration increase on his watch, while California’s influx has not increased.”

Meanwhile, the claim that 40 percent of new jobs in Texas were “created” for illegal immigrants is also problematic. First of all, the study it comes from, issued by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that wants to stem illegal immigration, does not say that these jobs were specifically created for illegal immigrants, as Romney suggested; it simply says that they took those jobs.

Second, serious questions have been raised about the methodology used in the report, as Perry noted in the debate. The report comes up with the 40 percent figure by taking two different samples, both relatively small, with significant sampling error. It then takes the difference of those figures and applies a guesstimate that 50 percent of immigrants are illegal. (A more detailed critique of the study by a conservative critic can be found here, as can a response by the report’s author.)

Given the questions that have been raised about the study’s findings, Romney should have been more cautious in his reference to it. Instead, he embraced it and even exaggerated it, saying its showed “almost half” of the new jobs were “created” for illegal immigrants.

The Pinocchio Test

Romney’s point about Texas being a “magnet” would have been clearer if he had made the broader case that his spokesman made to us, but the fact remains that he attributed it entirely to in-state tuition. Moreover, experts say that potential jobs, more than anything else, is what encourages immigration.

Romney also should not have cited a study that has been criticized for potential methodological flaws.

Two Pinocchios

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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