In April of 2015, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service responded to a confidential request from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The memo was short, but it ignited a fiery outcry about the perceived threat of immigration from Jeff Sessions, then a Republican senator from Alabama.
Sessions seized on charts in the CRS memo featuring a six-decade timeline estimating average incomes—mostly flat after 1970—and another showing a rise in the foreign-born population. Exhorting GOP presidential candidates to take these “forbidden facts” seriously, Sessions called on Republicans to fight to slash immigration—legal or illegal. “It is not caring, but callous, to bring in so many workers that there are not enough jobs for them or those already living here,” Sessions, a Judiciary Committee member, co-wrote in a column published by Roll Call, a congressionally focused news outlet.
Far-right media also sprang into action. The Breitbart website, led by future Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon, blasted out posts about the memo, along with TheBlaze and the Washington Examiner. Mark Levin, who hosts the nation’s fourth-most-consumed talk-radio show, read from a Daily Caller story.
“Wages and share of income for the bottom 90 percent of American wage earners declined over the last 40 years, as the foreign-born population increased dramatically,” Levin read with disgust. “Ask the phony economists who play around with the numbers, who try to persuade you that this is a good thing for the economy. These are facts. These are statistics.”
Only they weren’t facts. They were estimates. And they didn’t add up to Levin’s or others’ hyperbolic assumptions.
What Sessions and eager media failed to disclose was that CRS researchers took pains to warn against drawing any conclusions from those two lines of data. “It bears noting,” the researchers cautioned, “that a causal relationship between two variables…cannot be determined through a simple graphic representation.”
By Susan Ferris for MOTHER JONES
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