National Review Online, October 1, 2015
Donald Trump's call for a wall along the whole 2,000-mile border with Mexico has gotten a lot of immigration hawks excited. I understand the emotional appeal of his proposal, but it addresses what is actually the least serious vulnerability in our immigration system.
Border infiltrators were indeed the main type of illegal immigrants for a long time. Estimates dating from the 1990s were that about 60 percent of the illegal population had jumped the border.
But since then our effort at the border really has improved. While the number of border agents and the miles and type of fencing are all still inadequate, not all the money we've spent there over the past two decades has been wasted. Border crossings really are way down. We're much more able than we were before to patrol the border effectively, though we have an administration in Washington that often chooses not to do so, as we've seen with the ongoing surge of Central American teenagers and families into South Texas.
But even if we were to build a wall, and elect a president interested in using it to protect America’s sovereignty, we’d be missing most of the problem — because the majority of new illegal aliens are actually visa overstayers.
This is the most important — albeit buried — finding in a paper published this year by the Center for Migration Studies, an expansionist outfit run by the Scalabrinian Catholic order that nonetheless does serious work. Co-authored by Robert Warren, head of statistics for the old INS, the paper finds that the share of overstays among new illegal aliens has been rising pretty steadily since the 1980s and surpassed border infiltrators in 2008. The paper's most recent estimate is for 2012, when nearly 60 percent of new illegal immigrants are believed to have entered legally on some sort of visa (or visa-waiver status, if they're from a developed country) and then just stayed on after their time expired.
An indication of what's driving this overstay crisis was highlighted by my colleague David North in a recent paper. He found a huge increase in the overall number of "non-immigrant" (i.e., ostensibly temporary) visas issued by the State Department, and an accompanying decline in the percentage of applications being denied. In just five years, from 2009 to 2014, the number of visas issued grew 71 percent, while the percentage of visa denials dropped from 18.6 percent to 15.3 percent.
To top it off, President Obama's latest prosecutorial-discretion edict specifying which illegal aliens are worth bothering with downplays visa overstays. Point (d) in Priority 2 identifies as worthy of arrest and deportation "aliens who, in the judgment of an ICE Field Office Director, USCIS District Director, or USCIS Service Center Director, have significantly abused the visa or visa waiver programs."
"Significantly abused" is Obama-speak for "ignore them until they kill someone." And if that isn't clear enough, the very next paragraph says this (the emphasis is mine):
These aliens should be removed unless they qualify for asylum or another form of relief under our laws or, unless, in the judgment of an ICE Field Office Director, CBP Sector Chief, CBP Director of Field Operations, USCIS District Director, or [USCIS] Service Center Director, there are factors indicating the alien is not a threat to national security, border security, or public safety, and should not therefore be an enforcement priority.
To sum up: We've watered down the standards to get a visa, we've hugely increased the number of foreigners we issue visas to, and we don't bother to arrest or deport people who overstay those visas. Is it any surprise, then, that of the 1,000 illegal aliens who settle here each day, the majority are visa overstays?
We still don't have a check-out system for foreign visitors to enable us to identify these illegal-alien overstays, despite the fact that Congress has mandated it eight times. (Heck, we don't even send a text message to foreign visitors alerting them that their allotted time in the U.S. is about to expire, something that would cut down on overstays at almost no cost.) Until we have a visa-tracking system in place, we can't even pretend to be serious about immigration control.
Because of the corporate/libertarian/ethnic-chauvinist opposition to immigration enforcement, it took years of steady, unrelenting political pressure to get improvements at the border. The same commitment to fight the anti-borders crowd will be needed to force implementation of an effective visa-tracking system.
Unfortunately, bloviating about making the Mexicans pay for a wall distracts us from that task.