So Illegal Immigration Isn't Inevitable After All? Who Knew?

By Mark Krikorian on May 29, 2015

National Review Online, May 29, 2015

Thursday's Washington Post front page featured a story on the decline in illegal immigration. The story itself isn't news (my colleagues did their first report on this phenomenon seven years ago), but the story's dead-tree subhead explains the timing: "Trend alters dynamics of immigration reform, a likely topic for 2016."

A spokesman for the Maryland-based anti-borders group CASA was quoted as saying, "These trends have reshaped the immigration debate right before our eyes."

Translation: "Stop blocking amnesty and increased immigration, you troglodyte Rethuglikans!"

Several observations:

Enforcement works. Not all the money we've spent over the past two decades in beefing up the border has been wasted. We have nearly doubled the number of Border Patrol agents we had a decade ago (though there are still fewer agents in the entire Border Patrol than officers in the NYPD). Technology is improved and fencing, while still inadequate in many places, really does make it harder to sneak in through formerly busy areas.

The Post story quotes a Mexican illegal alien in Baltimore whose uncle wanted to come, too:

Three years ago, her uncle tried to cross the border and join the family in Baltimore, where they remain illegal immigrants. He was stopped three times by the U.S. Border Patrol and jailed for 50 days.

"He doesn't want to try anymore," said Camacho-Perez. "Now, it's really hard."

It's not (just) the economy, stupid. While the lure of jobs or joining family is obviously a powerful force, the claims from both the right and the left that border enforcement is irrelevant to the flow of illegals turn out not to be true. The Post quotes Marc Rosenblum, a former Kennedy staffer now at the expansionist Migration Policy Institute, as saying, "Every month or quarter that the economy continues to improve and unauthorized immigration doesn't pick up supports the theory that border security is a bigger factor."

In other words, migration isn't an irresistible force like the tides. It can be stemmed. And it's only because of sustained public demands for better enforcement — demands scoffed at or actively subverted by elites in both parties — that we're now able to talk about a (relative) slowdown in illegal immigration.

The Obama administration left the door open on purpose. Last summer's border surge was not a failure of the enforcement infrastructure, but a political failure — the Obama administration let "unaccompanied minors" and whole families from Central America into the United States. Almost none of them will ever be made to leave, if indeed they are ever located. (94 percent of those in family units with hearings last fall failed to show up.) Once the White House saw what a political problem the border surge was turning into, rather than use the available tools to actually enforce the law, it induced Mexico, presumably through some combination of threats and bribes, to prevent Central Americans from making it to our border in the first place. Thus Mexico's deportations of Central American illegal aliens have doubled since last year.

New arrivals continue. The Post story fails to note that, even with improvements at the border, hundreds of thousands of new illegal immigrants continue to settle in the United States each year. A recent report co-authored by Robert Warren, former head of statistics at INS, and published by the Center for Migration Studies, estimates that more than 400,000 new illegal aliens have settled here annually over the past few years. But that's being offset by a similar number of others who stop being illegal each year, half of them because they return to their native countries on their own. (There's a phrase for that, I think, maybe "self" something-or-other? I should ask Mitt Romney.)

Airports are the border too. For a long time, the rule of thumb was that 60 percent of illegal immigrants snuck across the border and 40 percent were "overstays," lawful visitors who'd lied to our visa officers about their plans and stayed here. So equating the Mexican border with the illegal immigration problem was never accurate.

Now it's even less so. Warren's report found that those proportions have been reversed — something like 60 percent of illegal immigrants are now overstays and only 40 percent are people crossing the border. The report noted that "the 'reversal' in modes of entry should lead to an increased emphasis on preventing likely overstays, and keeping track of visitors and others who are admitted temporarily." The Post article's exclusive focus on the border with Mexico is thus missing most of the current enforcement challenge.

The immigration debate will never go away. A New York Times op-ed some three and a half years ago summed up the perspective that the Post story is also promoting; it boasted that "the immigration crisis that has roiled American politics for decades has faded into history." This was a little, uh, premature. But it is at least conceivable that we can move immigration into being a more normal political issue, like taxes or defense, always contentious, of course, but more politically stable than it used to be.

In fact, I've laid out a framework to move us in that direction. It would have to be fundamentally different from the "comprehensive immigration reform" schemes that the political actors quoted by the Post favor, which involve immediate amnesty and increased immigration in exchange for yet more promises to do a better job at enforcement in the future.

A sound approach must start with full implementation of our existing enforcement systems. We need to cut ongoing illegal settlement from the still-absurd annual level of 400,000 a year and ensure that the current (relative) lull isn't just the prelude to a new surge of illegal immigration. Only after that's happened can we move to stage two, which would be a grand bargain of amnesty for many of the remaining illegal aliens in exchange for cutting legal immigration in half.

But even if you put the most optimistic gloss on the developments in Thursday's Post piece, we've only just begun stage one. Sure, the border isn't the joke it used to be, though it's still vulnerable. But E-Verify is still a voluntary program, not universally applied. Most new illegal immigration now comes from overstays, and yet we still don't have a proper exit-tracking system to make sure visitors leave when they're supposed to. And this administration is actually dismantling the system of state and local partnerships with federal authorities without which no meaningful enforcement of immigration laws is possible.

A "new era"? Maybe. Perhaps it's true that "we have moved into a new era" regarding immigration from Mexico, as Rosenblum told the Post. I certainly hope so, though the next economic crash there could change things in a flash.

But even if that's the case, two major problems remain. First, there are some five billion people in the world poorer than the average Mexican. As we see from the ongoing surge of Central Americans in South Texas (which is smaller than last year's, but higher than in any year before that), the Camp of the Saints scenario playing out in the Mediterranean, and Israel's efforts to halt African illegal aliens, the impulse to flee dysfunctional societies for the order and prosperity secured for us by our forebears will not abate any time soon.

And second, the effectiveness of any enforcement regime depends on the willingness of the executive to sustain it. Any enforcement successes under this administration are the fruit of long-term investments undertaken by the Clinton and Bush administrations. Obama's own instincts are very different — waving illegals from Central America across the border, rubber-stamping the first step in asylum requests, lawlessly granting work permits and Social Security numbers to illegal aliens, cooking the deportation books, releasing convicted criminals rather than removing them. It will be a miracle if any of the enforcement improvements Obama inherited survives to January 20, 2017. And there's a good chance the next president — whatever his or her party — won't be much better.

Warren's report indirectly sums up the problem with defending the gains described by the Post (emphasis in the original):

if we assume continued robust levels of border enforcement, and if Congress and DHS start to focus more attention on tracking, reducing and preventing the admission of likely overstays, it appears likely that the era of large increases in the unauthorized resident population will have ended.