During the renewed debate over the DREAM Act in the lame-duck Congress, we mostly got the same Democratic platitudes and Republican demagoguery we have come to expect on the immigration issue. Once again, members of Congress elected to put the politics of immigration ahead of solving this divisive issue and opted to endlessly repeat their talking points and buzzwords — as if those were going to change someone’s mind about the issue at this point.
Since our elected officials (and their cable TV surrogates) are not discussing the facts about immigration, I thought I would take this space to share some of them with you. I think that you will find some of this information surprising and to have some obvious policy implications.
The illegal immigrant population is declining. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that the total number of foreign nationals living in the U.S. without a valid visa topped out in 2007 at about 11.7 million. Since then, DHS believes that the population has been gradually declining and by January 2009 had fallen by about a million to 10.8 million. Other sources concur with these estimates. The hawkish Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the illegal immigrant population reached 12.5 million in 2007 but agreed with DHS’s estimate of 10.8 million in the first quarter of 2009. Most authorities agree that the number has continued to decline since 2009 because of tougher border and employment enforcement and the poor job market, especially in the construction sector.
Border and immigration enforcement efforts are at an all-time high. It is frequently said that the federal government is not doing its job on immigration. From the standpoint of failing to adopt a rational immigration policy, I would agree with that assessment. But from a pure enforcement perspective, the federal government has in recent years dramatically ramped up its enforcement efforts. In 1993, the budget for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the predecessor of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was about $1.5 billion. In 2010, the U.S. spent more than $15 billion on immigration and border enforcement. Even adjusted for inflation, that represents more than a 700 percent increase. And these resources are having an effect. ICE completed nearly 400,000 deportations in 2010, double the number just five years ago. Almost every expert agrees that it is more difficult to cross the U.S.-Mexico border today than at any other time in history.
Thirty percent to 40 percent of illegal immigrants came to the U.S. legally. This is one that came as a complete surprise to me. For most of us, the mention of an illegal immigrant conjures up an image of someone wading across the Rio Grande in the middle of the night. However, about 30 percent to 40 percent of those currently in the country illegally came to the U.S. on a valid visa but failed to leave by the time specified in their visa. This has a couple of interesting implications. First, contrary to popular opinion, these individuals have not committed a crime. While entering the U.S. without a visa is a misdemeanor, overstaying a visa is treated as a civil matter. A person overstaying a visa is subject to deportation but can apply for extensions or delays. Deportation is not automatic. More significantly, it means that if we had hermetically sealed the border over the last decade and not a single person had crossed the border illegally, we would still have 3 million to 4 million illegal immigrants living in the country.
A third of illegal immigrants are under the age of 24. It is inescapable that the vast majority of this group was brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were children. Most have never been to their home countries and many do not even speak their native language.
More than 60 percent of illegal immigrants have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years. We frequently think of illegal immigration as being a recent phenomenon. But when I was doing the research for this column, I found a discussion in the 1993 budget message decrying the problems of illegal immigration to justify INS’ substantial budget increase from the previous year. This is not a new problem. We have been diddling with this problem for nearly two decades.
Several months ago I went to Washington with a business group to lobby for immigration reform. What I found exasperating beyond description was that when we sat down with both Democrats and Republicans behind closed doors, there was very little difference in their respective positions. Everyone who has seriously studied this problem has come up with more or less the same set of recommendations: Continue to increase border security, implement a tamper-proof system of verifying immigration status as condition for employment and create a legal status for immigrants who came here illegally but are not causing any problems. It is as simple as that. All we need are some members of Congress willing to put the interests of their country ahead of the interests of their political party.
King is a frequent contributor to Outlook. His e-mail address is BKing@weking.net.