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Reaction: John Oliver’s segment on legal immigration
PUBLISHED:  Mon, OCT 14th 2019 @ 2:58 pm EDT  by  Jeremy Beck
NumbersUSA’s Jeremy Beck (Media Standards Director), Grant Newman (Government Relations Chief of Staff), and Rob Harding (Sustainability Communications Manager) discuss John Oliver’s segment on legal immigration [1].

JEREMY: So John Oliver dedicated one of his popular monologues to legal immigration. He broke down the legal system for immigrants and non-immigrants. What did you think?

GRANT: I like John Oliver, but I’ve noticed a trend- while I enjoy most of his videos, when he gets into things I know a lot about, I just get annoyed. Perhaps I shouldn’t hold such a high standard for someone trying to condense massively complex systems into a 20-minute segment with jokes, but it’s about what you’d expect.

JEREMY: There is actually a phenomenon called the Gell-Man Amnesia effect, where you see a story on a subject you know well and say to yourself “this person has no idea what they are talking about!” but then see another story by the same person – this time on a subject you know very little about – and say “wow, I never knew that!”

GRANT: Don’t ruin late night comedy for me.

JEREMY: Ok. So you’re an expert on the legal immigration system, Grant. Where did Oliver’s segment fail to meet your high standards?

GRANT: Notice how quickly he said everyone agrees immigration is great, ignored numbers, and moved straight on. Then he spent the entire rest of the video focused on how the US immigration system isn’t good enough for people wishing to come here with no regard to those already here. Nobody disputes that immigration increases GDP. It’s the actual impact on average workers that is the problem.

JEREMY: I also cringed at watching Oliver unwittingly carry water for the moneyed interests he often takes on, and I’ve taken issue [2] with Oliver’s segments before, but I really do appreciate his taking on “just come in the right way,” or “get in line,” and “legal good, illegal bad.” He’s right: it is more complicated than that. Those cliche arguments are unhelpful and they dumb down the discourse even if there is a kernel of truth to them. Sadly, I feel much the same way about this segment.

Take the first clip of Trump that he played. The “we’re full” clip. You wouldn’t know that Trump was talking about the overburdened asylum system, not the whole country. A lot of people misunderstood that clip when it came out, or knowingly took it out of context. I have no idea which camp Oliver falls into but it was too bad that he made a joke about America being empty because he missed a real opportunity to engage with the underlying question that politicians – including Trump – prefer to avoid: “how many?” What did you think, Rob?

ROB: The ecology angle was missing throughout the segment. Our open spaces do not translate to room for people, because to be a thriving country we need open space to absorb water and carbon. We need room for wildlife, too. Jokes are usually funny because they are true, but that joke wasn’t true. It’s not about how many people a country can contain but how many it can sustain.

JEREMY: Right, there is a lot of open space in America. How much of it should we keep [3]?

ROB: As much as possible. Our open spaces are part of functioning ecosystems, the region’s ecological life-support systems. And the demands on these ecosystems are outpacing their capacity to provide in serious ways that are harmful and not sustainable. For example, our aquifers cannot keep up with current demand and there are pockets of the country already facing extreme water stress [4].

JEREMY: You have a great blog [5] about this and the whole “we’re full” question, Rob. Oliver is far from the only talking head who avoids the ecological questions you raise, even though he seems to care a great deal about those issues when he is isn’t talking about immigration. What do you make of that?

ROB: I suspect that the ecological arguments for less immigration are not in any way on their radars. Far too many of our fellow Americans (and fellow global citizens, for that matter) haven’t been raised or trained to think (let alone act) in terms of complex systems, ecology, etc. Many simply don’t want to or aren’t willing to acknowledge the reality of limits, including the sensible limits on US immigration that need to be respected and enforced if any of us want a decent life and future in this part of the world for us humans and the non-human life with which we share our (increasingly fragile) communities.

JEREMY: Grant, what else jumped out at you?

GRANT: Failing to understand chain migration was painful. Yes, the pool of people a single person can sponsor is limited to spouse, children (minor and adult, even married children), parents, and siblings, but all of those individuals can eventually sponsor from their own pools.

Another thing that stood out – focusing on the three countries that are hurt by the per country caps while ignoring the 191 that would be unable to get anything under the employment-based system for at least 10 years if they lifted the cap. That cap was designed precisely to spread the wealth and prevent oversubscription by just a few countries.

JEREMY: Sounds like in addition to getting a few important details wrong, a lot of our frustration stems from what went unmentioned. Look, I don’t believe that it is a bad deal for America (or the world) to educate foreign students so they can start good companies in their home countries, but Oliver can make his case and people can make up their own minds. But I wish he would have acknowledged that foreign-student placement is a multi-billion-dollar industry [6], that’s more about commerce than education [7]. Again with the carrying water for monied interests.

GRANT: The point of the segment was really to argue that it is too hard to immigrate to America and we should make it easier. For all of those tempted to believe immigration has too few paths, revisit this chart. He just mentioned a couple.

JEREMY: That seems like a good educational note to end on. To take us full circle, I’ll lament once more that Oliver didn’t engage on the question of limits. “That doesn’t mean we have to take everybody” is not a limiting principle. Oliver suggests there might be a limit somewhere out there but offers no real guidance on where that might be other than to say the current limit is way too low and people who think otherwise are either stupid or evil. I’m grateful for Oliver’s audience getting a crash course in the legal immigration system, but I’m skeptical that the segment itself will move the national debate in a constructive direction.

ROB: You might be right about this segment not encouraging civil dialogue about immigration limits and trade offs.

GRANT: The President’s colorful statements on the other side don’t help, I’ll admit.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
GRANT NEWMAN is Chief of Staff of Government Relations for NumbersUSA
ROB HARDING is the Sustainability Communications Manager for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Oct 14th 2019 @ 3:58pm EDT
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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXqnRMU1fTs
[2] https://www.numbersusa.com/blog/john-olivers-fence-facts-more-vehicle-barrier
[3] https://www.numbersusa.com/blog/how-much-nature-should-america-keep
[4] https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/17-countries-home-one-quarter-world-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress