For too many policymakers, the starting point in thinking about illegal immigration is the forced choice between quickly rounding up and deporting all the millions of illegal immigrants, or letting them stay (i.e., amnesty).
But this is a false choice. In fact, there’s a third way, and the only approach that can really work in any case. That is what’s come to be called “attrition through enforcement” – consistent, comprehensive enforcement of the immigration law to bring about a steady reduction in the number of illegal immigrants, through a combination of fewer new arrivals, increased deportations, and most importantly, increase self-deportation of illegal immigrants giving up and returning to their home countries. The goal is not a magical disappearance of the problem, as in the mass deportation or amnesty scenarios. Instead, an attrition strategy seeks to replace the annual increase in the illegal population with an annual decrease, allowing us to back out of this problem over a period of several years.
There has been a significant amount of news coverage suggesting that this is happening, with stories from all over the country of illegal immigrants telling reporters that they’re going back because of the increase in federal worksite raids and the proliferation of state and local enforcement measures. But these have been little more than anecdotes.
Now there is research showing that attrition through enforcement works. A new report from the Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the illegal-immigrant population has fallen from a peak of 12.5 million in August of last year down to 11.2 million this past May, a drop of 1.3 million or 11 percent. This decline is many times larger than the number people deported by the government during that period, meaning that most of the decline is due to illegal immigrants returning home on their own – deporting themselves, as it were. If this decline were to continue at the same rate, the illegal population would be cut in half in five years.
Nor is the decline due solely to the weak economy. Though the slowdown in construction and other industries was no doubt a factor, there are several findings suggesting that enforcement was a major reason for the decision of illegal immigrants to leave. First of all, the decline in the number of illegal immigrants started before their unemployment rate increased; in the past, much smaller dips had been seen in the illegal population, but only after their unemployment rate increased, which is also what common sense would suggest. What’s more, only the illegal population declined; the number of legal immigrants continued to grow.
Lawmakers’ words also matter. There is good evidence to suggest that the number of illegal immigrants spiked last summer as Congress was engaged in a very high-profile debate on amnesty, covered extensively in both the mainstream media and also in the various immigrant-oriented newspapers and radio and TV programs. When the McCain-Kennedy immigration legislation failed so spectacularly in the Senate, the illegal-immigrant population began to drop almost immediately.
None of this should be a surprise. Illegal immigrants are people like any others, and they respond to changed incentives. When we essentially prevented immigration authorities from doing their jobs and held out the very real prospect of amnesty, illegal immigrants stayed put, and more of them came. Now that we are sending a very different message – that the party is over and immigration enforcement is steadily increasing – fewer are coming and more already here are leaving. The only question is whether the next administration and the next Congress will pull the plug on this new enforcement climate, and return to business as usual.