FACT CHECK: Romney’s ‘magnet’ charge attracts scrutiny

Republican presidential front-runner referred to a number of U.S. policies as 'magnets' for illegal immigration

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, lays a hand on Texas Gov. Rick Perry's shoulder during a Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, a widely-discussed gesture that contradicts a harsh tone the two candidates took with each other throughout the debate.

Chris Carlson/AP

Mitt Romney claims that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support for an in-state tuition program has acted as a “magnet” to draw illegal immigrants to Texas. But there is strong evidence to the contrary.

Romney, GOP debate, Oct. 18: "You put in place a magnet to draw illegals into the state, which was 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 in Texas."

Romney’s claim rests on shaky ground, and is based on selecting only the evidence that supports his thesis, while ignoring anything that would contradict it. A very different picture emerges when other states — and other sources of data — are considered.

California’s Weak ‘Magnet’

To start, California has had an in-state tuition program for illegal immigrants identical to the one Texas has. In 2001, not long after Texas passed its in-state tuition law, California passed a law that enables illegal immigrants to pay the same lower college fees as California residents if they attend high school in California for at least three years and graduate.

If such programs really operated as a “magnet,” then both Texas and California would be attracting illegal immigrants. But according to the data Romney cites, California has not.

Romney’s “magnet” theory also runs into trouble when the evidence from Arizona is considered. Romney didn’t mention that state, but data from the same source he relies on show that Arizona saw a 42 percent rise in its illegal immigrant population over the last decade. And yet, that state prohibits in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. So something other than in-state tuition must be the draw.

We, of course, don’t argue for or against granting tuition benefits to illegal immigrants, or to legal immigrants or to descendants of those who came over on the Mayflower, for that matter. But the facts don’t support Romney’s claim that Perry’s tuition program caused an influx of illegal immigration into Texas.

Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center offers an alternative explanation for the state-by-state differences in illegal immigration. “I don’t think anybody comes to the U.S. because they think if their kids go to high school here they can get in-state tuition,” he said. “They come for work, and Texas has had a relatively strong economy for the last four or five years. Florida has not.”

Murky Numbers

Furthermore, the numbers Romney cited are not as cut and dried as he made them seem.

The Romney campaign said the figures came from a February 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey. And it’s true that the report estimated (in Table 4) that the population of illegal immigrants in Texas increased from 1,090,000 in 2000 to 1,770,000 in 2010 — a 62 percent jump. Meanwhile, California’s illegal immigrant population increased 2 percent, going from 2,510,000 to 2,570,000; and Florida’s dropped 5 percent, going from 800,000 to 760,000.

But another survey shows a much different picture. The Pew Hispanic Center put out its own report estimating the population of illegal immigrants around the same time as DHS. Pew estimates are based on current population surveys. They’re a smaller sample than the American Community Survey, but they’re the same surveys used by the government to estimate unemployment and poverty rates.

According to Pew’s estimates, the difference in illegal immigrant populations in the three states was much less disparate. According to Pew’s figures, Texas’ illegal population went up 50 percent over the last decade, while the population went up 11 percent in California and up 43 percent in Florida.

The truth is, trying to count people who don’t want to be counted is a tricky and uncertain proposition.

The DHS report carries this warning:

DHS report: Caution is recommended in interpreting changes in the size of the unauthorized population presented in this report. Annual estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population are subject to sampling error in the ACS [American Community Survey] and considerable nonsampling error because of uncertainty in some of the assumptions required for estimation.

Said Passel: “None of these estimates [from Pew or DHS] are that good.”

Both estimates carry a high margin for error, and therefore make a shaky foundation for Romney’s case that Texas’ in-state tuition program has acted as a magnet for illegal immigration.

– Robert Farley

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