Politics & Policy

The Narrative Collapse on Immigration

Immigrants travel north through Mexico, June 2014. (Jose de Jesus Cortes/Reuters)
The numbers of arrivals, legal and illegal alike, are rising, not falling.

‘The immigration crisis that has roiled American politics for decades has faded into history.”

That was the lede of a New York Times op-ed four years ago that neatly summarized the preferred narrative of supporters of amnesty and unlimited immigration. This was reinforced by a Pew study that found “More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the U.S.” (though it arrived at that headline only by counting the U.S.-citizen children of the immigrants as “Mexicans”).

The storyline was that mass immigration was a phase we’d now finished with. Thus any continued agitation about amnesty or border enforcement or job competition could only be naked racism.


The newest data from the Census Bureau show a surge in total immigration over the past two years. In 2014 and 2015, 3.1 million new foreign-born people moved here, or about 1.5 million per year. This is up from the 2.3 million in the prior two-year period, and 2.1 million in 2010–2011.

Of the 3.1 million who immigrated over the past two years, about a third were illegal aliens — about 550,000 per year (up from 350,000 illegals entering per year in 2012–13). Two-thirds, or 1 million a year, were legal, up from about 750,000 a year in the prior two-year period.

(The total number of immigrants grows inexorably, but not by as much; new arrivals are always partly offset by departures and deaths, and the number of specifically illegal immigrants is also checked by the number who attain legalization.)

One element of the narrative remains true: Mexican immigration is way down. From a million new arrivals from Mexico, legal and illegal, in 2004–05, the number for the past two years has fallen to about a third of that. But that hasn’t translated into a drop in immigration overall, because there’s a whole world of potential migrants beyond Mexico; the number of arrivals from the rest of Latin America has more than doubled since 2010–11, and the number from Asia has risen nearly 40 percent.

The Census Bureau data doesn’t tell us why immigration has increased so dramatically, but it’s probably been caused by the combination of modest improvement in the U.S. economy and Obama’s dramatic cutback in enforcement.

#share#Several conclusions flow from these new numbers. First, the illegal-immigration problem isn’t magically going away on its own. The assumption that it was led to the argument for tying up the remaining loose ends with an amnesty and forgoing enforcement measures such as border fences, E-Verify, and the rest. The claim was never plausible to begin with, but a lot of amnesty-pushers seem to have actually believed it. Even the slowdown in immigration from Mexico isn’t necessarily permanent; it’s up about a third from the low point of 2010–11 and will probably jump a lot more the next time there’s an economic crisis there, unless we put in place the necessary preventive measures now.

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Second, immigration is not a purely economic phenomenon driven simply by the business cycle. The weakest recovery in generations, with record numbers of Americans having dropped out of the labor market altogether, is still accompanied by dramatic growth in new immigration. As Europe is also discovering, there are hundreds of millions of people abroad who want to get to the civilized world regardless of the state of the economy there.

#related#Finally, a related myth that is debunked is the claim by supporters of increased immigration that, if only legal admissions were increased, illegal ones would drop. The new numbers show that illegal settlement rose dramatically in 2014–2015 at the same time as the number of legal arrivals did. Legal and illegal immigration are complements, not competitors. The only way to really get rid of illegal immigration is to abolish immigration limits altogether — that way, everyone who wants to come will be able to do so. This scenario, unlimited immigration, is implicit in all “market-driven” immigration proposals, but their backers won’t admit to it because they know that the public would recoil. In fact, there is no plausible level of legal immigration that can eliminate illegal immigration.

These numbers suggest how narrow the debate over immigration is in the presidential campaign. While Trump’s written immigration platform is pretty sophisticated, in his public appearances he focuses almost exclusively on the “wall,” when most immigration is actually legal, and even most of the new illegal immigration comes from visa overstays, not border jumpers. Hillary, of course, is hopeless, embracing what amounts to Angela Merkel’s immigration platform by explicitly saying that she would deport no one who hasn’t been convicted of a violent crime.

Whatever the outcome of the campaign, these immigration numbers make clear that we can never “put the issue behind us” or “get it off the table” or whatever cliché timorous Republican politicians turn to next. As much as tax policy and foreign policy, immigration policy is a permanent feature of political debate.


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