In 2008, immigration may be what gay marriage was to the 2004 election: a divisive issue used not to present an actual policy or platform, but rather to galvanize a voting bloc.
Fear-mongering on the issue of immigration comes from a bevy of sources — from white supremacist groups to CNN.
“Illegal immigrants are attacking our culture and our way of life,” Glenn Beck told his audience on his “CNN Headline News” in the manner typical for his prime time-show — Beck discussed the “scourge” of undocumented workers on more than a quarter of his 2007 programs.
In a report released Wednesday, the watchdog group Media Matters documented and dispelled a pattern of myths propagated by cable news shows and their anchors that fuel anti-immigrant racism and have sparked an increase in hate crimes against Latinos.
“The language of today’s hosts, like Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, is divisive and inflammatory, and often misleading,” said Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, at a Capitol Hill news conference announcing the release of the report. “It only creates fear, hatred and negative stereotyping of immigrants.”
Dobbs, the host of CNN’s prime-time show “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” is the ringleader of the cable news anti-immigration fear mongers — featuring often-distorted stories about immigration on 70 percent of his programs in 2007.
Frank Sharry, founder of the immigration reform group America’s Voice, said, “Lou Dobbs’ show is marketed as ‘a time for answers,’ when we know it should be marketed as ‘a time for anger.’”
Janet Murguía, the president of the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza, said the distorted rants of the anti-immigration news anchors can’t be simply dismissed as an exercise in free speech. “Hateful words have hateful consequences,” she said.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., noted that the period of increased anti-immigrant vitriol on cable news has correlated with a period that’s seen an unprecedented increase in hate crimes against Latinos, according to the FBI.
Dobbs, Beck and O’Reilly often build upon several themes of what they claim undocumented workers, often referred to simply as “illegals,” do to the country. The Media Matters report, “Fear and Loathing in Prime Time: Immigration Myths and Cable News,” systematically dismantles many of the harshest talking points.
One of the most common myths is that undocumented workers drain government resources while the same workers pay nothing into the system. But as Media Matters notes, “even documented immigrants are ineligible for most forms of public assistance for the first five years they reside in the United States or until they attain citizenship,” let alone undocumented ones.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., used humor to skewer the idea that undocumented workers don’t pay taxes by wondering aloud if there was some secret line at retail outlets where undocumented workers bought their goods without paying sales tax (sales taxes represent the largest share of taxes paid by all low-income workers). Moreover, the Media Matters report points out that most undocumented workers use false social security numbers to get jobs and, through paycheck deductions, pay taxes that they will never be able to draw benefits from.
In fact, undocumented workers pay a plethora of other taxes, too — even by paying rent, they contribute to property taxes.
But the patently false drain on the economy and social services are the least of the worries of the anti-immigrant crusaders: They also focus on the myriad of ways that undocumented workers threaten Americans with bodily harm.
One of the most common claims, discussed during 94, 66 and 29 episodes of Dobbs’, O’Reilly’s and Beck’s shows, respectively, is that illegal immigrants are more prone to crime, endangering the very security of Americans.
Noting that no academic or government study on immigration and crime differentiates between illegal and legal immigrants, the Media Matters report says, “The evidence strongly suggests that immigrants in general are less likely to commit comes” than the native population.
As they’re wont to do, the cable news anchors have their own statistics that show otherwise. However, their statistics are twisted or misrepresented, as with their claim that a vastly disproportional number of U.S. federal prisoners are non-U.S. born — about a quarter of the total.
That number is skewed, as federal prisons only comprise one-tenth of the total prison population, and immigration violations are federal offenses. The actual share of non-citizen prisoners is 5.9 percent overall; the foreign-born population of the United States is about 12 percent of the total, which means that foreign-born people are significantly less likely to be behind bars.
Furthermore, the anchors often repeat the same stories about undocumented workers committing crimes over and over again, giving the impression that many crimes are being perpetrated.
Media Matters documents that O’Reilly dedicated segments on 13 separate programs to a single case of an undocumented worker who was responsible for two drunken-driving fatalities in Virginia, “brush(ing) aside arguments that such cases are unrepresentative.”
Another common myth of the potential harm that illegal immigrants pose to American life and limb is that undocumented immigrants are conduits for bringing diseases to U.S. shores.
“Twelve million immigrants who come across the border, many of them have diseases, and they’re not checked!” exclaimed right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan as a guest on O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel program. It’s not an uncommon point.
The Media Matters report said Dobbs has brought up the notion of undocumented workers increasing U.S. cases of leprosy 10 times since 2005. But the figure cited by Dobbs’ expert, 7,000 new cases of leprosy in the past three years, actually referred to an aggregate number for the past 30 years.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Hansen’s Disease Program, there have been fewer than 400 new cases of leprosy in the period discussed by Dobbs and his expert.
But Dobbs refused to back down from his claim, telling CBS News’ Lesley Stahl, “If we reported it, it’s a fact.” The participants in Wednesday’s news conference feared that Dobbs and the other anchors’ viewers would have the same response.
Even some members of Congress mistake the myths of cable news for facts, said Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif. And the fiery rhetoric continues to draw new viewers and increase the revenue-generating ratings of the programs.
The news media, said Paul Waldman of Media Matters, “has a responsibility to the public. Their responsibility does not end with their bottom line. If they’re going to call themselves a news station, then they have a responsibility to the truth.”
“It is the networks that bear the ultimate responsibility,” he said.
In the democratic system where an independent media is intended to be a sacrosanct way of informing citizens and arming them for political choices, the prime-time cable news shows in question have debased the debate over immigration into the worst kind of dishonest fear-mongering.
Sharry warns that while presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has relatively moderate views on immigration, his down-ballot Republican ticket-mates are going to run on an anti-immigration platform “like never before,” painting the issue as an urgent matter of national security.
“We all want to figure out a solution that protects our borders, our economy and our American values,” said Menendez on Wednesday. “But if we are going to have a productive, civil debate about it, we are going to have to come to the table with facts, not misinformation; with respect for one another, not hate.”