USA Today Provides a Platform for Anti-Immigration Think Tank’s Flawed Study

USA Today coverage of immigrants and welfare

A USA Today headline (9/2/15) inaccurately conflates “immigrants” with “immigrant-led households”; many people in households headed by immigrants are US citizens, and they are the ones more likely to be receiving welfare benefits.

“Report: More Than Half of Immigrants on Welfare,” USA Today titled a recent story (9/2/15). Not mentioned in the headline is that this report was conducted by an anti-immigration think tank with ties to white supremacist groups.

Citing a study by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), USA Today‘s Alan Gomez claims that roughly 51 percent of immigrant-led households receive welfare, compared to 30 percent for “native”-led households. (By “native,” the paper does not mean indigenous Americans, but rather US citizens.)

The second sentence of the article describes CIS as “a group that advocates for lower levels of immigration.” The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the leading monitor of extremist and hate groups in the US, describes CIS quite differently, calling it “part of a broad-based and well-planned effort to attack immigration in all forms.”

In its 2009 report, SPLC notes that

CIS was started in 1985 by a Michigan ophthalmologist named John Tanton–a man known for his racist statements about Latinos, his decades-long flirtation with white nationalists and Holocaust deniers, and his publication of ugly racist materials.

Despite its self-presentation as a “scholarly think tank that produces serious immigration studies,” SPLC says CIS “has frequently manipulated data to achieve the results it seeks”–a charge echoed by the Daily Beast (5/15/14), which referred to CIS as “the immigration false-fact think tank.” A scholar at the Immigration Policy Center, which has debunked many CIS studies, told the SPLC that “CIS’s attempts to blame immigrants for all of the US’s problems have been laughable.” She added, “It is clear that CIS is not interested in serious research or getting the facts straight.”

The new CIS report on welfare has already faced a barrage of criticisms, and not just from the left. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch brothers, condemned the CIS study, claiming it “does not compare apples to apples but rather apples to elephants.” Cato points out some of the sleight-of-hand used by CIS, including the fact that its unit of study is the “immigrant-led household”–which often includes spouses or children who are native-born or naturalized citizens. Since immigrants are often ineligible for many benefits, it’s clear that much of the welfare said to be going to “immigrant-led households” is actually going to US citizens.

The USA Today piece, which uses “immigrants” and “immigrant-led households” interchangeably, does cite pro-immigration conservative Linda Chavez noting “that many benefits counted in the study are going to US-born children of immigrants,” but it doesn’t refer to these children as US citizens. Chavez, a Fox News analyst and former Bush administration official, was the only critic of the study cited–and, indeed, the only source other than CIS in the article.

In part as a result of the fact that some of the people in “immigrant-led households” are not eligible for various benefits, Cato points out, “when poor immigrants use welfare they consume a lower dollar value than poor natives do.” CIS does not provide a comparison of the cost of welfare going to immigrant and non-immigrant households–presumably because such a comparison would have weakened its anti-immigrant case.

USA Today is not the only outlet uncritically echoing a flawed study by an axe-grinding organization. Many right-wing media wrote about the new report as well, including Fox News (9/2/15), Breitbart (9/2/15), the Daily Caller (9/2/15) and more. Other more centrist media picked up on it as well; AOL News (9/3/15) essentially rewrote USA Today‘s story without any new reporting, accompanied by an uncritical HuffPost News video summary.

CNBC (9/3/15) and the International Business Times (9/3/15) also reported on the study. They did include criticisms from the Cato Institute, but did not mention CIS’s ties to extremist groups.


Ben Norton is a freelance journalist and writer. His website can be found at BenNorton.com and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.

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This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.