On Public Radio, Cato Analyst Turns Immigration Statistics Upside Down

By Jerry Kammer on January 4, 2018

Duke University historian Nancy MacLean presents a pointed observation about the Cato Institute in her new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. She observes that Cato, founded with millions of dollars from billionaire businessman Charles Koch, "would be unbending it its advocacy, whether for taking an axe to taxes, revoking government regulation, ending social insurance, or presenting unfettered personal liberty as the answer to all problems."

Consistent with its opposition to nearly all forms of government regulation, Cato supports unfettered immigration to the United States. Today, in an appearance on the public radio program 1A, Cato immigration policy analyst David Bier took an axe to some basic statistics on illegal immigration.

In an effort to downplay the dimensions of illegal immigration, Bier said: "If you look at 1986, we had the largest legalization program in U.S. history. Three million mainly Mexican immigrants were legalized in 1986. And every single year after 1986 the number of people crossing the border illegally went down, year after year after year, like clockwork."

Fortunately for the program's solid reputation, another guest on the program was Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He set the clock – and the record – straight.

"We had about five million illegal immigrants in 1986," said Krikorian. "About three million of them got amnesty. So we ended up with about two million left in the late 1980s. We now have between 11 and 12 million illegal immigrants. There's simply no question that illegal immigration has dramatically expanded."

To be fair to Bier, it's important to note that there was a short-term drop in illegal immigration following passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. As the federal Yearbook of Immigration Statistics for 1999 reported, "Southwest border apprehensions were an all-time record 1,615,844 in fiscal year 1986 and then decreased 3 consecutive years immediately following IRCA's enactment." By 1989, the number of Border Patrol arrests had dropped below one million for the first time in seven years.

That initial decline made sense, according to Mexican researcher Jorge Bustamante. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bustamante "said those who received amnesty are no longer arrested, resulting in a drop in the Border Patrol's arrest statistics."

But then researchers at the University of California at San Diego and elsewhere reported that amnesty recipients were drawing unauthorized friends and relatives to join them by providing financing for the trip and assistance in finding work. And so, in 1990, the number of apprehensions jumped 23 percent to 1.2 million. "The trend is not in the right direction," a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service acknowledged at the time.

University of California agricultural economist Philip Martin took the measure of the bill's failure. In his book Promise Unfulfilled, Martin wrote: "Perhaps the most important effect of immigration reform was to spread unauthorized workers from the Southwest to the rest of the country." As Martin noted, those who were granted legal status were able to move freely around the country. When they found work and pleasant surroundings, they put out the word to friends and relatives back home. Then many of them crossed the border illegally to join them.

Between 1990 and 2000 Border Patrol arrests rose every year except for 1994 and 1997. As the federal government reported in its 1999 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, "The number of Southwest border apprehensions in 1999 was 1,537,000, a 1 percent increase compared to fiscal year 1998." In 2000, the figure jumped to 1,814,729.

Those numbers apparently didn't register at the Cato Institute. In the land of the libertarian, no border control is good border control and efforts to limit immigration are an offense against individual liberty.