Its Heart Belongs to Data (Summer 2006 Trust Magazine article)

People on all sides of the immigration debate can rely on the same set of facts, thanks to the Pew Hispanic Center.

May 1—when more than a million people nationwide stayed away from their jobs or school to influence the direction of immigration reform—was called the Day Without Immigrants.

Roberto Suro never has a day without immigrants. He directs the Pew Hispanic Center, which, throughout the nation's extended and highly-charged debate on illegal immigration, has emerged as one of the most-cited sources for facts about Latino immigrants.

Take, for instance, the April 10 issue of Newsweek. The week's focus, “Illegals Under Fire,” featured a cluster of articles on the immigrant question. The lead story cited the center five times for its research on:

  • the percent of U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants (64); 
  • the percent of U.S.-born Latinos who “consider illegals a burden on the country” (28); 
  • their reasons; 
  • the public's view on sending illegal immigrants home (53 percent say yes) and on granting “some form of legal status” (40 percent are in favor); and 
  • the size of the U.S. illegal population (as many as 12 million, up from 5 million in 1996).

The group of articles also referenced data first produced by the center and now so commonly repeated that they effectively belong in the public domain.

Multiple appearances in a single article are one measure of success, yet the center more typically finds its work cited in a broad array of media.

On the days surrounding the Day Without Immigrants, the center was cited in at least 100 media—including newspapers in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Its research finds its way into trade journals (“Mutual Funds Should Heed Hispanic Market,” Money Management Executive), the Voice of America and, of course, the U.S. mainstream press. For instance, the day of and the day following President George W. Bush's Oval Office address to the nation on the immigrant question in May, the Austin American-Statesman, The Christian Science Monitor, CNN, The Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times (in two articles), The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Wichita Eagle made use of the center's data.

This attention would lead you to think that the Pew Hispanic Center studies immigration exclusively. Hardly. It also produces reports on the demography, economics and education of Latinos, most of whom are citizens or legal immigrants; on their identity—how they see themselves and their place in U.S. society; on their status in the labor force; on their politics—participation in elections, their partisan loyalties and views on policy issues; and on remittances— the billions of dollars immigrants send back to their country of origin, how the money is sent and how it is spent.

At the same time, the issue of the moment is undoubtedly immigration— or, more pertinently, illegal immigration, most of it from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Americans “are increasingly concerned about immigration,” noted the study “America's Immigration Quandary,” conducted nationally and in five cities by the center in conjunction with the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and released in March.

It continued: “A growing number believe that immigrants are a burden to the country, taking jobs and housing and creating strains on the health care system. Yet the public remains largely divided in its views of the overall effect of immigration. Roughly as many believe that newcomers to the U.S. strengthen American society as say they threaten traditional American values, and over the longer term, positive views of Latin American immigrants, in particular, have improved dramatically. Reflecting this ambivalence, the public is split over many of the policy proposals aimed at dealing” with unauthorized migrants. In acknowledging the divisions and high emotions that the matter engenders, President Bush, in his Oval Office talk, stated that “America needs to conduct this debate on immigration in a reasoned and respectful tone.”

The information from the Pew Hispanic Center—factual, nonpartisan, unbiased, balanced—allows for the possibility of a rational discussion of a highly emotional topic. Its immigration studies focus specifically on trends in migration flows, the characteristics of the foreign-born population and attitudes toward immigration policy issues.

In addition, its research, regardless of topic, generally tabulates data for U.S.-born and foreign-born Hispanics separately, so any of the information can be particularly relevant in understanding this highly diverse minority group.

“We have provided basic numbers and key understandings of the demographic trends, which all the parties to the debate have accepted,” says Suro. “There's been a debate over what to do about the numbers, and there's a very bitter, multi-sided argument over what policy should be, but the debate has basically operated on a common set of facts. People generally agree on the dimensions of the problem and several of its key characteristics.

“That's facilitated the discussion,” he continues. “The focus has been more on the actual policy options and alternatives for approaches to the problem rather than the dimensions of the phenomenon itself.”

The center was created at the Trusts' initiation in 2001, well before the current debate on immigration. “We were responding to a major demographic trend—Hispanics were about to officially overtake African Americans as the nation's largest minority group,” says Donald Kimelman, the Trusts' managing director of Information and Civic Initiatives. “Hispanics were clearly going to be a big part of the story of America in the 21st century, and yet the nation was woefully uninformed about the complex nature of the Hispanic population and how it was affecting the larger society.”

In the course of their due diligence on the subject, Kimelman and several of his colleagues interviewed Roberto Suro, who was then a reporter at The Washington Post. “We were looking for feedback on the notion of creating a nonpartisan center to study Hispanics: ‘Is this a good idea? What topics should we be covering?'” Kimelman recalls. “Roberto surprised us. He said, ‘Not only is this a good idea, but I'm the guy to make it happen.'”

Suro, who is of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian descent, is a veteran observer of previous immigration debates. He first wrote extensively about illegal immigration in the United States in the spring of 1976, when he was a reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times. He covered the congressional debates on immigration in the 1980s and 1990s for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and in the '90s wrote three books on the immigration phenomenon.

Nothing derailed a potentially substantive discussion faster, he learned, than the absence of an accepted set of numbers—for instance, the size of the unauthorized population. “People were arguing about the facts before they even got to arguing about the politics,” he recalls.

And too often, the debate never advanced, or political will failed to be converted into law that reflected a coherent, durable strategy. “Now, we're back looking at the same questions that have been around, really, for 30 years.”

This time around, he says, “the center has hopefully allowed the policy process to leapfrog one stage.” Here's why:

Results. A few examples: The center's reports on remittances influenced the decisions of some major multinational banks to expand marketing efforts directed at Latinos. Its report on Hispanic student retention helped lead the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans to designate the issue as a high priority.

News stories—more than 1,000 last year—cited the center's data on subjects as diverse as standardized testing, Social Security reform, the war in Iraq, high-school dropout rates, the nature of racial identity and tax cuts.

On immigration, advocates on all sides use the figures. Significantly, the U.S. Senate bill that provided different options for immigrants who had been in the United States for more than five years, from two to five years, and less than two years, based those phases on a center study of largely unauthorized Mexican immigrants who reported distinctive intentions about remaining in the country according to those time periods.

Experience. Says Suro: “We've been laboring at it for a long time and gotten some credibility, so when the debate took off, people readily accepted our data as at least a basic starting point.”

Expertise, which is hardly limited to Suro's. For instance, Jeffery S. Passel, who is a senior research associate at the center, is a nationally known expert on immigration to the United States and the demography of racial and ethnic groups Last year, he was elected a fellow of the American Statistical Association. (See "The World Through a Demographer's Eyes" below.)

Transparency. “We go to great lengths to publish our methodology,” Suro notes. Passel's articles have appeared in academic journals, including the current issue of Demography, the field's leading periodical. He can analyze the work “in more wonkish detail than anybody other than a specialist would want to look at,” Suro says with a smile.

“But in the field, among other people who work with these numbers, they know exactly what he's done and how he came to his conclusions. He presents the methodology at conferences and collaborates with others, so there's a lot of contact with other experts in the field to make sure that we're doing the right thing, to let them know what we're doing, so they can critique it. It's all done out in the open. And we reference it in all of our papers.”

Staying out of the fray. “We scrupulously avoid any kind of advocacy,” says Suro. “Time and again, when we release a number, people on very different sides will all cite our work and draw completely different conclusions. And even when, at times, people on any side of this debate find fault with some aspect of our work, they will then go ahead and cite other aspects of it.”

Suro is often asked to take part in panels or broadcast-media debates. He usually avoids appearances if advocates are also invited, although, in that case, he offers to speak first “to lay out the landscape,” he says. “Then the advocates come in and argue about what it means. That's the typical formula.”

Outreach. The center's experts have been invited to present their reports to, among others, the White House, those on Capitol Hill, agencies such as the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, and to branches of the Mexican government. “We describe our range of findings, how we went about the research and what we think it means—statistical analyses, that is, not policy analyses,” says Suro.

“We do tabulations that help explain the numbers and put them in context. For instance, sometimes you've got to take two numbers and sort of hold them against each other—it's in the comparison of two numbers that you get the meaning.

“We don't do policy analysis per se that would, for example, argue that if you adopted policy solution X, Y would be the result, or that policy solution Z won't work because of the following demographic factors. That self-imposed limitation, I think, has added to our credibility.”

In asking questions, audiences typically want more specifics, especially something to bolster a point of view. “These are all people who are involved in the policy process, and they're smart folks,” says Suro. “They're looking for data that either support or counter a specific policy position, so they'll ask factual questions but specifically related to policy issues. For instance, ‘Say you're going to have a temporary worker program that would require people to go back after six years—what does your research say about that kind of possibility?' We can present the findings without entering into the argument, even though the questions are often pointed.”

Sometimes, the center learns that the data are being used very selectively to make a partisan point, but it keeps hands off as long as the data are being cited accurately and not being manipulated or misused. If that were the case, Suro's team might offer to explain the numbers again. But if it is simply a matter of interpretation, “it's none of my business,” says Suro. “There's very little on this subject that's unambiguous. People will then find clarity for their own purposes. But we can't try to edit that.

“It works out fine,” he adds, “because, at this point, people on both sides are doing it. And it's more than both sides. There are about five different sides to this thing now.”

Strict neutrality gives the center a pivotal role—much closer to the action of the debate than a reporter can enjoy. As Suro points out, a reporter is in the press box, not on the playing field. The center is on the playing field, but participating in a controlled way by simply providing facts.

“It's a unique role played by a Pew information project,” he continues, alluding to the Pew Research Center, of which the Pew Hispanic Center is a part. “I mean, there's really no other body, not just on this debate but in general, that has taken this approach to public policy issues. It seems marvelously common-sensical and obvious, but, remarkably enough, there's no one else who does it.”

Many research organizations, he adds, explicitly promote one avenue of policy solutions; many universitybased scholars, even though they analyze their data scrupulously and rigorously, offer specific policy recommendations, choosing to become associated with a point of view. And others may have a sub-text of seeking further funding, which might affect impartiality.

To exemplify the importance of agreement on facts, consider the number of illegal immigrants. Researchers at Bear Stearns Asset Management, Inc., estimated 20 million as of January 2005. The Office of Immigration Statistics of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services) estimated 7 million as of January 2000 (it has not updated this figure of January 2003). Yet the number mentioned by President Bush, members of Congress and media of all sorts, not to mention Jay Leno, is the center's estimated 11.5-12 million. (The report that released this figure was prepared for the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future, a bipartisan commission co-chaired by former Senator Spencer Abraham, RMich., and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and convened by the Migration Policy Institute, in partnership with the Manhattan Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.)

Most often, the source of the number is not cited. “They don't say ‘the Pew estimates' or ‘the Pew Hispanic Center' anymore,” says Suro. “They've just kind of been accepted—which is totally fine by us. We're not looking for credit. We're just out there saying, ‘We're just trying to give you the best information available, so that when you try to form policy, you're doing it on the basis of good research.'”

For all of the Pew Hispanic Center's research, surveys, datasets and publications, go to its Web site at The center is located at 1615 L Street, NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036-5610, and its phone number is 202.419.3600. 

Marshall Ledger is editor of Trust.

The World Through a Demographer's Eyes 

"Sometimes,” says Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, when he hears the center's data quoted, “I feel like raising my hand and saying, ‘Well, just remember they're estimates—we did the best we could.'”

The estimates, and the continual improvement of the demographic methodology, are the province of Jeffrey Passel, senior research associate. The American Statistical Association chose him as a fellow last year “for outstanding contributions to the measurement of population composition and change, with special focus on immigrants and immigration; for the use of data to inform public policy; and for insightful contributions to the understanding of census data.”

The center's widely-accepted methodology is called the “residual method.” First, the team seeks to determine the legal foreign-born population. The government provides a number, but a demographer has to look farther. The government's figures do not account for those who become legal immigrants after they are already in the country—for instance, foreign students who gain permission to stay or illegal immigrants who obtain a green card and become legal. Other variables include the number of legal immigrants who die (easy data to collect), or those who leave the country (Passel and colleagues describe improvements on this measure in the journal Demography).

“So,” Passel says, “there's a little bit of art and a little bit of estimation in matching the demographic concept with the original government number.”

After obtaining a figure for the legal foreign-born group, Passel will subtract it from census or other large-survey data that measure the overall immigrant population in the United States. “That difference, or that residual, is our first estimate of the undocumented population,” he says. He makes adjustments for those who are left out of the surveys, draws on other studies that aim to measure the total U.S. population, and “triangulates” the results against data from Mexico (the home country of most illegal immigrants to this country). “Demographic expertise comes into play in filling in the gaps,” he says.

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