Illegal Immigration Hits New Low: One Less Hurdle for CIR?

During the Bush administration, there was bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) that could have satisfied both sides: enforcement advocates as well as those seeking a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. By the time President Obama was sworn in, that fragile consensus had broken down. A growing bloc in Congress insisted on “sealing the border first,” making this the sine qua non for cooperation on CIR. Irony of ironies: insistence on sealing the border continues to intensify, despite evidence that the surge in federal border enforcement has sharply reduced unauthorized access, while demand for illegal immigrant labor has gone off a cliff in many segments of the economy, like construction and the restaurant trade.

As we reported a few months ago, the Obama administration has aggressively cracked down on illegal immigration, intensifying its efforts to arrest, detain, and remove unlawful immigrants, and “setting new records for the volume and intensity of federal immigration enforcement efforts.” (See DHS Releases 2010 Immigration Enforcement Statistics, MurthyBlog, 07.Jul.2011.) Comparing FY10 results with those of previous years, we found:

“In fiscal year 2010 (FY10) – government-speak for the period running from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010 – DHS apprehended 517,000 foreign nationals, and removed 387,000 of them from the United States. This is down from the high-water mark of 2009, when DHS apprehended 613,000 foreign nationals, and removed 393,000, but it still is considerably higher than FY08’s numbers, when DHS took 792,000 foreign nationals into custody, but ultimately removed only 359,000 of them.”

Those are last year’s numbers. As we approach Fiscal New Year’s Eve this Friday, new DHS numbers indicate the southwestern border is tighter than ever, prompting questions about why so many GOP presidential candidates still talk as if there’s a crisis of violence, criminality, and lawlessness along this very border. In response to this news, the Washington Post published an editorial calling on GOP members to tone down the border-in-crisis rhetoric, because it no longer accords with the facts:

When the current fiscal year ends this week, illegal border crossings from Mexico, as measured by apprehensions carried out by a massively beefed-up Border Patrol, will fall to their lowest level since 1972. You read that right. The southwestern border – the very same frontier portrayed by Republicans as so wild and out of control that it rules out any serious discussion of immigration reform – is in fact more tightly controlled than at any time since President Richard M. Nixon’s first term. Now here’s a suggestion: Wouldn’t if be novel if Republicans, who are at least partly responsible for this dramatic success, acknowledged it? And wouldn’t it also be honest?” (See Figures Say GOP Should Declare Victory on Immigration, Washington Post editorial, 25.Sep.2011.)

 If you’re tempted to dismiss this as an artifact of inside-the-Beltway bias, liberal or otherwise, think again. The Wall Street Journal – American capitalism’s paper of record – agrees that it’s time to move on:

“To listen to the recent Republican Presidential debates, you’d think illegal immigration was the biggest threat to the U.S. economy – not to mention the rule of law, our social fabric and national security. We hate to spoil the political reverie, but the real immigration story these days is how many fewer illegal immigrants are trying to get into the land of the free. That’s the news from the Department of Homeland Security, which reports that border apprehensions have dropped to their lowest level in nearly 40 years.” (See The Illegal Immigration Collapse, Wall Street Journal, 24.Sep.2011.)

According to the Wall Street Journal, dire – and demonstrably false – pronouncements about the border have prevented us from facing reality, and making the immigration reforms that our economy needs. The WSJ argument rests on a sound commercial rationale: that American businesses and American prosperity depend on immigrants. By way of example, the article points to the plight of U.S. farmers, who cannot find enough legal workers to pick their crops, in part due to “onerous restrictions on recruiting legal workers to do those jobs.” Like many other things in our immigration system, this needs to be fixed.

Several other examples come to mind; we urgently need to make it easier for the world’s best and brightest to come here, to fuel innovation and growth in our high-tech sector. This is true for foreign students and highly-talented H1Bs and L-1s, but the lack of movement on CIR has kept these and other important improvements from seeing the light of day, mainly because, as the WSJ puts it, “shouting that the border isn’t ‘secure'” is now “the all-seasons excuse to block any immigration reform that would allow more legal avenues into the U.S.”

For its part, the Washington Post called on the GOP “to declare victory, claim credit and move to the next stage – fixing the system and providing a path to legal status for eleven million undocumented immigrants who, like it or not, have become an integral part of the nation’s fabric.” A nice thought, but probably not a realistic expectation right now.

At this writing, there’s little indication that the GOP base would support movement on CIR before the 2012 elections. This should be clear to anyone who saw last week’s debate of GOP presidential hopefuls: several candidates – doubtless intent on scoring points with their supporters – ganged up on Texas Governor Rick Perry for allowing illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition at state universities there.

Perry is far from the middle of the road, but he stood out as the lone moderate – at least in relative terms – in his willingness to take a more pragmatic approach to immigration. Both Michelle Bachmann and Mitt Romney took swipes at Perry for his position on immigration, and Rick Santorum called him “soft on illegal immigration.” Ouch! As they used to say in the old Western movies, “them’s fightin’ words…”

With the time still before us in a campaign season that seems to go on forever, it will be interesting to see if anyone – Republican or Democrat – will wake up and realize someone could be taking credit for this noteworthy drop in illegal immigration. Once claimed, perhaps they finally will be willing to turn the page and get back to moving CIR forward – the way they were in 2001!

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.