‘They’re not going back unless they are rounded up” — Hillary Clinton, 2007
In this quote, Senator Clinton nicely summed up the conventional wisdom on immigration enforcement: the only options before us are either arresting and deporting every single illegal alien or legalizing them. George Will was more colorful with his image of “200,000 buses in a caravan stretching bumper-to-bumper from San Diego to Alaska” as the only way to reduce the illegal population.
The Bush administration shared this view and for six and a half years pushed amnesty, which finally crashed and burned in the Senate last summer. After that stunning defeat, the result of an unprecedented outpouring of public outrage, the White House appears to have decided to let immigration authorities do their jobs. (I have a piece about this in the current print issue of National Review.)
Whatever the administration’s motives behind permitting stepped-up enforcement (and I have my doubts), the results are now in: enforcement works. A new report, by Steven Camarota and Karen Jensenius of my Center for Immigration Studies, estimates that the illegal-immigrant population has declined 11 percent through May of this year, down to 11.2 million from an August 2007 peak of 12.5 million. If this decline were sustained, it would cut the illegal population in half in five years.
The drop in the illegal population is many times larger than the number of illegal aliens actually deported during that time, so by definition most of the decline is due to illegal immigrants leaving the country on their own.
Of course, the economy has slowed down, so maybe this development is just part of a normal ebb-and-flow of illegal aliens responding to the business cycle. Right?
Wrong. First of all, it’s only the illegal population that has dropped; the number of legal immigrants continues to grow. Also, the decline in the number of illegal aliens began before there was a significant rise in their unemployment rate. Finally, while the illegal population did decline some during the last recession, and thus the economy almost certainly plays a role, the current decline is already significantly larger than last time, and it’s not clear that we’re even in a recession yet. What’s more, there is good evidence that the illegal population actually rose last summer while Congress was debating the McCain/Kennedy amnesty bill and then, when that legislation failed to pass, the illegal population began to fall almost immediately.
These findings, based on monthly surveys from the Census Bureau (and as hard as it is to believe, most illegals really do respond to such surveys), are consistent with anecdotal evidence reported in the media over the last year: “More Mexicans leaving U.S. under duress,” “Arizona Seeing Signs of Flight by Immigrants,” “Hardships in Mass. spur Brazilian exodus,” and so on. The findings are also consistent with data showing a drop in remittances sent home by immigrants and a drop in border arrests.
The biggest question now is not whether enforcement works, but whether the next administration will abandon the current enforcement push. Obama and McCain have essentially identical positions on immigration, favoring legalization of the current illegals and increases in future admissions. Their rhetorical commitment to enforcing immigration laws is grudging and transparently insincere.
But even before they have a chance to pull the plug on enforcement, the two candidates could halt the decline in the illegal population just by talking up amnesty at every turn. As the spike, and subsequent drop, in the illegal population during last summer’s amnesty debate suggests, illegal immigrants respond to incentives just like anyone else. If there’s a realistic, widely publicized near-term prospect of amnesty, more of those already here illegally will rethink plans of leaving, and more of those not yet here will decide to risk the trip.
In that case, the sooner the next president introduces his promised amnesty bill, the sooner it can be defeated, and the sooner we’ll be able to get back to shrinking the illegal population via the proven strategy of attrition through enforcement.
— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies www.cis.org and an NRO contributor. He is author of The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal, published earlier this month by Sentinel.