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Cynthia Needham
By Cynthia Needham December 1, 2010

R.I. ACLU director says more than half of state's foreign-born population is white

Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee's  promise to rescind the executive order on immigration enacted by his predecessor, Donald Carcieri, has brought Rhode Island's simmering immigration debate back to life.

Supporters of the 2008 order say it has given the state new tools to curb illegal immigration, but critics, the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union among them, say it hasn't worked and has marginalized the Hispanic community.

One of the order's eight directives requires the state police to work with federal authorities to help enforce immigration laws.

In a Nov. 20 Providence Journal story and in a subsequent letter to Chafee, ACLU Director Steven Brown decried the fact that 77 percent of the people investigated by the state police for suspected immigration violations were born in Latin American countries, despite the fact that "over half of the foreign-born population in Rhode Island is white."

That statistic about the foreign-born population caught our attention, so we decided to put it to the Truth-O-Meter.  

Brown directed us to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, 2006-2008, which includes three-year estimates of foreign-born populations in the United States. Specifically, he said he was citing the figures showing that 45.2 percent of foreign-born Rhode Islanders are white.

That's not more than half.

The ACLU director conceded that he misread the data and meant to say "'almost half' not ''over half.' "

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Fair enough. But things get more complicated when you dig deeper into census figures to examine the point behind Brown's statement -- that Hispanics are being investigated more often than non-Hispanics.

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey is an ongoing statistical
analysis that's conducted  through questionnaires on various demographic topics mailed monthly to homes; the bureau produces reports as often as once a year.

The survey asks respondents to identify their race. Among the choices: white, black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska native, native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.

There is no option to select Hispanic.

That's because, according to the U.S. Census, "Hispanic" is an ethnicity, not a race. Hispanics and Latinos have the option of checking off one of the above races or a final box labeled "some other race," according to Arthur Bakis, information services specialist at the bureau's Boston regional office.

The race standards are defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget and have been in place for decades, according to Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

Typically, about half of foreign-born Hispanic respondents across the United States identify themselves as white and about 40 percent answer "some other race," said Charles A. Gallagher, chairman of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

The 45.2 percent statistic that Brown cited for Rhode Island was the total percentage of foreign-born people here who identified their race as white. So on its face, Brown's "more than half" statement was not too far off.

But there is a broader context to consider. The more relevant statistic to Brown's point comes from the previous question on the same survey. It asks respondents whether they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, or not.

Drawing from data in the 2006-2008 survey, the census said that 32 percent of foreign-born people, about one third, are white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.

Bakis of the Census Bureau and Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center agree that is the data that Brown should have used if he wanted to properly quantify the size of Rhode Island's foreign born, non-Hispanic white population.

"It's a mistake that people who are not familiar with the data might make," said Passel.

(It's worth noting that Brown cites figures from the 2006-2008, three-year American Community Survey. A one-year report from 2009 showed that 30 percent of Rhode Island respondents identified themselves as "white alone, not Hispanic or Latino." But Census officials say the three-year survey is more accurate, so that's the one we relied on.)

In the end, Brown's underlying claim that the state police investigate Hispanics more often than non-Hispanics for immigration violations is supported by the department's own numbers. Of the 92 people investigated, 71 were from Latin American countries.

But that's not what we were checking. Instead, we examined the assertion Brown made to support his argument: that more than half of foreign-born Rhode Islanders are white.

And in that claim, he misstated the percentage -- by a small amount if you count all who said they were white, but a larger amount if you count those who consider themselves white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.

We rate this Half True.

Our Sources

Illegal Immigration Control Order,enacted March 27, 2008, by Governor Donald Carcieri. Accessed Nov. 29, 2010.

The Providence Journal, "Impact of Carcieri's immigration order under scrutiny," Nov. 20, 2010

U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2006-2008 estimate, "Rhode Island, Selected Characteristics of the Native and Foreign-Born Populations"

U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2009 estimate, "Rhode Island, Selected Characteristics of the Native and Foreign-Born Populations"

U.S. Census report: "Race and the Hispanic Origin of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2007"

Interview and emails, Steven Brown, Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nov. 24-26, 2010

Interview, Arthur Bakis, information services specialist at the U.S. Census Bureau's Boston regional office, Nov. 26, 2010

Interview, Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer, Pew Hispanic Center, Nov. 29, 2010

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Cynthia Needham

R.I. ACLU director says more than half of state's foreign-born population is white

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