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A Suspicious Immigration Statistic

The U.K. is coming around to a new view (one supported by economic research): Immigration doesn’t cut jobs for the native-born population.

British policymakers and the media could have gotten there faster by taking a closer look at one of the statistics most often cited by opponents of immigration: Every 100 new immigrants cost the jobs of 23 native-born Brits, the statistic claims.

The figure became fodder for anti-immigration newspapers and the Home Office within Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, which supports capping immigrant numbers. Home Secretary Theresa May repeated it in December 2012 and again last October. In July, the Home Office cited it in a report that was amplified by the Daily Mail in an article with the forceful headline, “True toll of mass migration on UK life.”

But according to several U.K. media outlets, a yet-to-be-released government report debunks that stat. And the researchers who wrote the 2012 report that gave rise to the claim, “Analysis of the Impacts of Migration,” offered plenty of reasons for caution.

The researchers called the figure a “ballpark estimate.” And check out how many caveats they crammed into this sentence: “As a starting point for analysis, 100 additional non-EU migrants may cautiously be estimated to be associated with a reduction in employment of 23 native workers.” That ballpark sounds more capacious than the old Polo Grounds.

Later, in an annex describing their methods, the researchers explain why they’re being so cautious.

They found that immigration suppressed jobs from 1995 to 2010, but not to a statistically significant extent from 1975 to 1994. Over the whole period, the effect also wasn’t statistically significant. Different endpoints would have yielded different findings.

Then there’s that eternal research bugaboo, mixing causation with correlation. The researchers tried to test for that with what are called robustness checks, and lo and behold, the correlation between immigration in one period and native employment a year later wasn’t statistically significant.

Macroeconomic findings often contain loads of caveats because it’s hard to control for economy-wide characteristics. This finding owes its long public life to losing its caveats as it got amplified and altered by the press and politicians.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.