Between 1980 and 2007, for example, 70 percent of Associated Press stories written about immigration focused on legality, according to the study. During the same time period, 86 percent of New York Times stories and 87 percent of "CBS Evening News" stories did the same.
Media chatter plays a significant role in shaping both public opinion and policy, Ramakrishnan said. In a recent study of states that have enacted hard-line immigration enforcement laws he found no evidence of the immigrant troubles frequently cited by proponents. There were no statistically significant changes in demographic shifts, crime or economic instability. Instead, his research suggests state-led crackdowns on illegal immigration are driven by political partisanship and party polarization.
Changing the conversation
Hoping to add another dimension to the immigration debate, Portnoy decided to start a public education program.
Portnoy started out small, adding a small public education arm to the ILC to analyze immigrant trends in Massachusetts.
What it found flew in the face of popular sentiments.
Economic worries have long played a major role in the immigration debate. Historical graphs of the unemployment rate and immigration attitudes are eerily similar. Since 1965, when the unemployment rate rose, so too did support for decreasing immigration, according to the Brookings Institute.
Right now, the economy and unemployment rank at the top of Americans' list of worries for the country. And, according to the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institute based in Washington, D.C., a majority of Americans see immigration as more of a problem than an opportunity. Close to 60 percent of Americans believe immigrants take jobs from native workers.
According to Portnoy and her team of researchers, though, immigrants are more likely than native citizens to start their own businesses. Five percent of naturalized citizens are self-employed compared to just 3.7 percent of native-born Americans. In Massachusetts, ILC researchers found more than a quarter of all biotech companies had at least one immigrant founder. In Boston, New York City and Philadelphia, immigrants started 40 percent of all transportation companies.
"That's miraculous," Portnoy said. "Immigrants aren't 40 percent of the population."
With a sizable grant in hand, Portnoy approached George Mason University with a plan to dig deeper. Last month, they launched the Institute for Immigration Research.
Using detailed Census data, the center plans to build a national map pinpointing self-employed immigrants, said James Witte, a George Mason University professor of sociology and director of the institute. They also hope to build a database of immigrant graduate students, then track a sample longitudinally to measure their economic impact.
"With all of the heated rhetoric about immigration these days, academically rigorous research results are needed," Witte said.
Portnoy, whose parents were both entrepreneurs, thinks she knows which direction the research might point. But, she's adamant about doing away with the rhetoric and letting the data do the talking.
"She's made it really clear the research we are going to do has to be independent," Witte said. "If we find out immigrants are bad for America, that's what we are going to tell her."
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