Enforcement at Work: The strategy of attrition is bearing fruit

By Mark Krikorian on August 1, 2008

National Review, August 4, 2008

Is immigration enforcement effective? Ask the New York Times: “Children someday will study the Great Immigration Panic of the early 2000s, which harmed countless lives, wasted billions of dollars and mocked the nation’s most deeply held values.” An enforcement program that can move the Times to such a display of righteous indignation must be doing something right.

But you don’t need to read between the lines to see what’s happening on the immigration front. Proof that our belated efforts against illegal immigration are bearing fruit is piling up by the day. Combined federal, state, and local initiatives are demonstrating that the strategy of attrition through enforcement reducing the illegal population over time, largely through self-deportation rather than mass roundups actually works.

The headlines tell the story, even if they reliably omit the word “illegal”: “Arizona Seeing Signs of Flight by Immigrants,” “More Mexicans Leaving U.S. Under Duress,” “Hispanics Moving Out of Oklahoma before New Law Takes Effect,” and so on. While the attrition strategy isn’t as coordinated as it could be, all levels of government are generally rowing in the same direction. At the federal level, the most notable efforts are directed at denying illegal aliens access to employment, both through stepped-up worksite enforcement and through expansion of the voluntary E-Verify system, which enables an employer to check online whether a new hire is eligible to work in the United States. More than 10 percent of all new hires in the nation are already being verified in this way, a percentage that is sure to rise once new rules go into effect requiring that all federal contractors use E-Verify.

They’re getting the message in the boardrooms, too. Anderson Windows, for instance, recently performed a personnel audit of employees of a newly acquired firm, resulting in the dismissal of more than 200 illegal aliens. As the Newark Star-Ledger put it, such firings “are part of a growing trend in which employers are purging unauthorized workers to avoid a fledgling immigration crackdown by the U.S. government.”

The approach at the state and local level has become more sophisticated since the 1990s. Then, the major immigration states sued Washington to be reimbursed for the cost of services provided to immigrants, and state efforts were generally directed at limiting access to such taxpayer-funded services. But that didn’t work for the simple reason that immigrants legal or illegal don’t come here just to get welfare. The high rate of welfare use by immigrants (half of all families headed by a Mexican immigrant use at least one major welfare program) is inevitable because, no matter how hard they work, people with very little education or few skills simply cannot earn enough to support their families in the way that our society expects without subsidies from the taxpayer. The federal and state attempts to limit access to welfare, however compelling politically or even morally, failed in the face of the fact that America is not going to let people die on the doorstep of the emergency room simply because they’re illegal. What’s more, much of the welfare money is spent on the American-born children of illegals, who are U.S. citizens and therefore cannot be denied access to government services.

The most important development we’re seeing now at the level of state and local governments is their augmentation of the federal effort to deny jobs to illegals. As of the start of this year, Arizona began requiring all the state’s employers to use E-Verify and will revoke the business licenses of firms that persist in knowingly hiring illegal aliens. Other states are also requiring E-Verify for at least some hires, with even the governor of Rhode Island issuing an executive order mandating E-Verify for all state agencies and vendors.

Another popular effort is what’s known in the jargon as a 287(g) program, which gives state or local law-enforcement officers extensive training in immigration law and effectively deputizes them as immigration agents. Nearly 50 jurisdictions are participating, with twice that many on the waiting list. The bottleneck is not training the officers, but budgeting for detention space additional 287(g) programs would turn up more illegals for immigration authorities to take custody of and put somewhere until they’re sent home. The effect of such programs is magnified by the fact that, as one writer who’s looking into the issue told me, the Spanish-language media hype 287(g) programs and other enforcement initiatives as though they were the Apocalypse, causing illegals to think things are even worse for them than they are.

School-enrollment statistics provide the first evidence of what blogger Mickey Kaus calls the Gran Salida (Great Exit). Los Angeles, for instance, has seen a 7 percent drop in school enrollment since 2003. Prince William County, Va., which enacted the toughest measures in the Washington, D.C., region, saw a 5 percent drop in English-as-a-second-language enrollment just in the past year. Some illegal aliens and their families are no doubt traveling to other cities or states that are more hospitable to them, with reports of migration from Arizona to Texas, and from Virginia to Maryland. But even this is progress because attrition, in the words of one far-Left critic, is “a strategy aimed at wearing down the will of immigrants to live and work in the United States,” and persuading illegals to move to another state can be the first step toward such wearing down.

But they’re not all going to other states. A forthcoming report by my colleague Steven Camarota at the Center for Immigration Studies has found a measurable drop in the total illegal population since last year, with most of them leaving on their own rather than being deported.

The open-borders crowd acknowledges that illegals are leaving, but claims that this development merely buttresses their assertion that immigration is mainly a market-driven phenomenon when the economy goes sour, illegals go home. Nice try, but there’s more to it than that. First, the illegals themselves say otherwise; in the words of one illegal leaving in anticipation of Arizona’s tough law, “I don’t want to live here because of the new law and the oppressive environment.”

An April survey of immigrants from Latin America (half of them illegal) conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank found the same result 28 percent of respondents said they were considering returning home and 81 percent said it was harder to find a job. The role of enforcement came out when respondents were asked whether they considered “discrimination against immigrants” a major problem, and two-thirds said yes. Since that was almost double the proportion who answered yes in a survey in 2001, it’s clear that the “discrimination” they’re referring to is the enhanced enforcement of the immigration laws, a point reinforced by the fact that illegals were much more likely to point to this “discrimination” than naturalized citizens.

The population data also point in the same direction. While unemployment among illegals has indeed gone up, no doubt contributing to their decisions to leave, the above-mentioned Camarota study finds that the drop in the illegal population has been accompanied by a continuing increase in the legal immigrant population. What’s more, the decline in the illegal population seems to have begun with the collapse of the McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill in the Senate, before there was a significant rise in the unemployment rate for illegals. As one Brazilian said of his illegal countrymen in Massachusetts, “When the immigration bill didn’t go through, people were very disappointed and started buying tickets [to return home].”

There’s plenty more to do we need better marketing for enforcement programs and more funding for state and local police actions, as well as full implementation of the check-in/check-out system at the borders (called US-VISIT) to limit visa overstays, which account for as much as half the illegal population.

But as important as such measures are to accelerating the Gran Salida, the first priority has to be to prevent the current enforcement push from being discontinued by the next president. The success of attrition is an inconvenient truth, as it were, for the amnesty crowd. But since the top immigration priority for both McCain and Obama is legalization of the illegal population (McCain told Hispanic officials that “it would be my top priority yesterday, today, and tomorrow”), anything that gets in the way of that goal is a threat.

In the past, spasms of enforcement quickly tapped out, teaching law-breaking businesses and illegal immigrants that they had only to keep their heads down for a time and the storm would pass. Regardless of the election result in November, changing that expectation is essential to regaining control over our immigration system.

Mr. Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and author of The New Case against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal.