Looking for truth in e-mails

The e-mail that popped into my inbox started with an insult and included an attachment full of “facts.”

After calling me a “crybaby” for writing a sympathetic story about Mexican immigrants, the sender insisted I read a series of statistics on the effects of illegal immigration on Los Angeles and California. Hospitals, law enforcement and other public services, he said, are being overwhelmed.

At first, because of the sender’s tone, I ignored the attachment. Then it arrived again, this time forwarded by a friendly reader. He didn’t believe the e-mail, he said, but wanted me to know that three friends had sent it to him. And 10 of its facts were said to have originated in this newspaper.

I started reading the chain letter, which carried the title “Just One State.” It asked me to forward its message to at least two other people. “If this doesn’t open your eyes,” it declared, “nothing will.”


I’m all in favor of having my eyes opened -- and then making sure my eyes don’t deceive me. So I took the 10 “stats” and focused a little light on them. I waded deep into The Times’ archive with the help of our librarian Scott Wilson, and made a few phone calls too.

What did I find? A stew made up for the most part of meaty exaggerations and spicy conjecture, mixed in with some giblets of truth. Two of the “stats” are the musings of a conservative op-ed writer. Another takes its information from a government “report” that is, in fact, a work of fiction.

The last two items on the list are the most accurate -- but they reveal more about the prejudices and fears of the people passing the list along than they do about the supposed effect of “illegals.”

Here they are, from 1 to 10:

1. “40% of all workers in L.A. County are working for cash and not paying taxes. . . . This is because they are predominantly illegal immigrants working without a green card.”

The source of this information seems to be a 2005 study by the Economic Roundtable on the informal economy in Los Angeles County. Its findings were reported in The Times and other papers.

But the chain-mail’s author more than doubled the figures in that study, which estimated that 15% of the county workforce was outside the regulated economy in 2004. Illegal immigrants getting paid in cash, it said, probably made up about 9% of the workforce.

A later Economic Roundtable report, by the way, credited immigrants with keeping the local economy from shrinking in the 1990s.

2. “95% of warrants for murder in Los Angeles are for illegal aliens . . . “

We traced this “fact” to a 2004 op-ed in The Times by Heather Mac Donald of the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Mac Donald said “officers” told her about the warrants. She conceded that there were no such data in official reports but suggested the LAPD “top brass” was hiding the truth.

I called the LAPD’s press office, which contacted the department’s Fugitive Warrant Section. Officers confirmed that the statistics in item No. 2 and No. 3, which follows, don’t exist.

3. “75% of people on the most wanted list in Los Angeles are illegal aliens.”

We traced this figure to something circulating on the Internet under the name “the 2006 (First Quarter) INS/FBI Statistical Report on Undocumented Immigrants.” The “report” contains similar figures for Phoenix, Albuquerque and other cities. But it isn’t an actual government document. The INS ceased to exist in 2003, after the Department of Homeland Security was created.

There’s something really disturbing about a work of fakery meant to tarnish an entire class of people. You wonder what kind of person would pen such a thing.

4. “Over 2/3 of all births in Los Angeles County are to illegal alien Mexicans on Medi-Cal, whose births were paid for by taxpayers.”

Once again the “statistic” more than doubles the actual figures. According to a 2006 story in The Times, there were 41,240 Medi-Cal births to “undocumented women” in the county in 2004. They accounted for 27% of all births.

5. “Nearly 35% of all inmates in California detention centers are Mexican nationals here illegally.”

This time the author more than triples the actual figure. Authorities project some 19,000 of the 172,000 inmates in the California prison system in the 2009-10 fiscal year will be illegal immigrants. That’s equivalent to 11%.

A study published last year by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California actually found that U.S.-born men in California are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than foreign-born men. You can take that statistic with as many grains of salt as you wish.

6. Over 300,000 illegal aliens in Los Angeles County are living in garages.

This information apparently comes from a 1987 article in which The Times visited a sampling of properties across the county and looked for unauthorized garage conversions. The story concluded that 200,000 people lived in such dwellings.

The story made no effort, however, to determine immigration status. I’d like to point out that just living in an “illegal garage” doesn’t make you “an illegal.” You might just be a starving artist, or a guy who recently lost his job.

7. “The FBI reports half of all gang members in Los Angeles are most likely illegal aliens from south of the border.”

This is another “fact” spun from the 2004 op-ed by Heather Mac Donald, whose article refers to a single Los Angeles gang and the conjecture of an unnamed federal prosecutor.

8. “Nearly 60% of all occupants of HUD properties are illegal.”

Annie Kim, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles, called this statement “an urban legend.”

The source of the information may be an Associated Press report from earlier this year. It quoted a government study that found that 0.4% of residents of federally funded public housing are “ineligible noncitizens.” Half of those, or about 0.2% of the total, are illegal immigrants.

9. 21 radio stations in L. A. are Spanish speaking.

10. In L. A. County 5.1 million people speak English, 3.9 million speak Spanish.

These facts are close to the actual numbers, though the language figures are deceptive.

An annual census survey asks people if they “speak a language other than English at home.” According to the most recent report, 3.7 million county residents speak Spanish. But more than half of those Spanish speakers answered that they also speak English “very well.” Only one in 10 Spanish speakers said they don’t speak any English at all.

Obviously, the ability to speak a language other than English, or the desire to listen to Spanish music, doesn’t make you an illegal immigrant or a threat to U.S. democracy. It’s a slur against Los Angeles, really, to find these items on a list of “problems” caused by illegal immigration.

The authors of the chain e-mail and the phony government report fear what Los Angeles has become -- a multilingual, multiethnic city with multicultural tastes.

They search for information to persuade others to be afraid, but the actual numbers don’t quite add up to the big monster they think is out there.

So they make the numbers bigger. Or they just make them up. And they spread them around until all that fear and anger turns into a big hate.

That’s what I saw when I let that e-mail open my eyes.