The Return of Illegal Immigration

A massive and costly federal scheme failed to work. Who could have seen that one coming?

For opponents of illegal immigration, there is good news: We have found an effective method to reduce the number of new arrivals, while encouraging foreigners already here without permission to go home. There is also bad news: The method is a long, severe recession.

It worked for a while. The unauthorized immigrant population topped out at 12.2 million in 2007, which was also the year the economy began an 18-month contraction. The ranks of interlopers shrank by nearly a million over the next two years, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. But when the recession ended, so did the decline. It has "bottomed out, and the number may be rising again," says Pew.

Apprehensions at the border, a rough indicator of the pace of attempted entries, followed a similar course. They started falling even before the recession, but they are now ticking upward.

Conservatives are rarely surprised to find that massive government programs are oversold, ineffective or even counterproductive. But they somehow expected the border control binge to turn out differently.

It didn't. The flow of illegal immigration continues even though the government has spent billions building nearly 700 miles of fence between the United States and Mexico. We have twice as many enforcement officers on the southern border as we had 10 years ago and five times as many as in 1993.

So what do hardliners in Congress propose to do about this conspicuous failure of government? Throw good money after bad. In June, the Senate voted to allocate a staggering $46 billion to border security between 2014 and 2018.

It elected to double the size of the Border Patrol -- even though, as Fawn Johnson of The National Journal notes, "Many of the border agents we already have spend a lot of time staring at sand."

Anti-immigration groups think it's about time. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told The Washington Post, "The idea that the current level of enforcement is somehow adequate is not true." He's right that the current level of enforcement is not adequate. But the record suggests no level could ever be adequate.

Barack Obama has not been soft on the issue. Last year, his administration deported a record 410,000 undocumented foreigners. But the threat of being caught and expelled has not caused a mass rush by immigrants to "self-deport," as Mitt Romney hoped.

The implosion of the economy seems to be the chief reason for the small, temporary drop in the population of those living amid us without permission. But the overwhelming majority of those here illegally have stayed.

These failures illuminate the limits of enforcement and the importance of accepting reality. Granting most unauthorized immigrants an avenue to live here legally and eventually become citizens would foster assimilation and make it harder for employers to pay them lower wages than citizens. It would allow young people who did nothing wrong -- because they were brought here as kids -- to escape a dead end.

The state numbers in the Pew report suggest that the reason people come here, through hell and high water, is the lure of jobs -- not, as commonly assumed, the appeal of free government benefits.

"Texas is the only state throughout the Great Recession that has seen an increase in illegal immigration," points out policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute. What Texas offers is a stingy welfare system and a lot of companies eager to hire. Illinois and California, which essentially provide the opposite, saw their numbers drop.

Immigration reform would also have the unexpected effect of inducing some of those here illegally to depart. Before the crackdown, many undocumented foreigners felt free to go home for months or years, if not permanently. But as the cost and risk of sneaking in mushroomed, many of them decided that leaving is not an option.

A 2011 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "rather than acting as a deterrent, increased enforcement appears to have other effects on migrant behavior: it increases the duration of trips and reduces the likelihood of return migration." This effect is a big reason the undocumented population is so much bigger than it used to be.

The heavy enforcement approach, in short, has been a big federal undertaking stymied by individual choice and market forces, resulting in a huge waste of money. Who could have ever seen that coming?

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  • John||

    The job market still sucks. The economy is no better today than it was a year ago. So why has illegal immigration increased? Maybe the prospect of Amnesty and the roll out of a giant medical care entitlement might be driving it?

  • WTF||

    No, the recession ended, everyone says so! Recovery Summer IV was a huge success!

    Why must you be such an economic denier?

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  • ||

    Possibly, but there have also been minimum wage hikes and threats of more, which might make employers more keen to higher folks working under the table.

  • ||

    hire even

  • John||

    That is a good point.

    The minimum wage, making illegal immigrants more attractive employees every day!!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Obamacare is another huge reason for employers to hire off-book employees.

  • Swiss Servator, Helvetica FTW!||

    Thanks for punch #2 after Jesse's punch #1...

  • BakedPenguin||

    I don't think many illegals are going to be hired in the P&C insurance industry, so at least we won't be hearing you scream TUK MAH JERBZ any time soon.

  • Square||

    The article didn't say that illegal immigration has increased. It says that illegal immigration has stopped decreasing, probably because the economy is no longer in a free fall.

    The article also points out that the one border state that is stingiest with public services, Texas, is the one with the biggest illegal immigration problem.

    Working in construction in CA, I know one or two illegal immigrants. Not one has a driver's license, receives any sort of welfare, or will even consider visiting a hospital unless an artery is shooting blood at least 2.5 feet.

  • John||

    The article also points out that the one border state that is stingiest with public services, Texas, is the one with the biggest illegal immigration problem.

    That is because it has the best economy. And sure not every immigrant wants welfare. Not every native does. But unless you can explain why illegals or Latin Americans in general are some kind of alien being who don't respond to incentives the way the rest of the human race does, the existence of welfare is going to encourage immigration.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    The existence of welfare encourages native births too, but you don't see me getting all Margaret Sanger up in this bitch.

  • Square||

    You agree that the whole point of the article is that Texas has the bigger illegal immigration problem because it has the best economy. If they were coming here for welfare, CA would have the bigger problem.

    Our immigration problem in CA is not so much with Latin Americans coming here for our social services, it's meth-addicted Okies coming here for our social services. I haven't ever noticed any significant crowds of illegal immigrants risking their lives for welfare fraud.

    Don't get me wrong - I'm not so pro-welfare. I just believe in focusing on issues for what they actually are, and the sense that illegals are some huge drain on public services has always struck me as off the mark.

  • OneOut||

    Every grocery and convenience store here in Texas has a sign in Spanish saying, "WIC Se Acceptan Aqui", which means something like WIC accepted here.

  • waffles||

    Do they get out the tape measure?

  • Falkland Comments||

    "Conservatives are rarely surprised to find that massive government programs are oversold, ineffective or even counterproductive. But they somehow expected the border control binge to turn out differently."

    Conservatives (at least the ones of the neocon variety) also seem to think that the government program known as military intervention will work and have no unintended consequences. They are wrong of course.

  • John||

    NEOCONS love open borders. Pretty much all of Washington loves open borders. The only thing that keeps it from happening is that the American people don't and have the nerve to expect their top men to represent their interests.

    There are very few politicians in Washington who wouldn't happily sign up to screwing over their constituents via open borders if they could just figure out a way to get away with it.

  • Square||

    Weren't the neo-cons the ones who wanted the fence in the first place? On account of the terrorists?

  • SIV||

    It was Mexico trying to avoid a tidal wave of meth-addicted Okies.

  • ||

    where do you think most of the meth is made???not the rv rolling around it is made by the ton in mexico and much carried in on illegals where do you think they get the money for the coyotes.
    as for fraud ever her of identity theft
    use someone elses social security number
    collect or work get close to getting caught buy or steal another

  • ||

    All of which strengthens the argument for easing legal means for entering the country. If I can check in with a background check at the border, get a work ID number and travel freely, I don't need to mule drugs to pay may way, hire a coyote or steal anyone's identity.

  • ||

    so how many millions would you let in?
    with 90 million citizens and legal residents unemployed

  • ||

    All of them?

    If I had to choose between being jobless in a country where I was a citizen and the cost of living was low and a country where the cost of living was prohibitively high, I had access to only the most basic safety net, and I was asked to leave and come back to try again following a finite period of unemployment (which would cut into the working under the table problem), I'd stay the fuck home.

    Immigrants aren't stupid they're as much rational actors in the economy as anybody. If there aren't jobs to be filled they won't come, particularly if you make policy that eliminates incentives to stay, commit fraud, or undercut minimum wage laws*.

    *whatever one's opinion on minimum wage having a class of workers who don't abide by it and a class of actors who will, will harm the law abiding actors.

  • Square||

    Exactly - "they" won't "all" come here. People will show up until the jobs run out.

    There would be a short term equalization, obviously, if you just opened the border, in which there would be a small flood in the labor market.

    I think this flood would be smaller than most anti-immigration people think though - border security as it is today is not exactly the hermetic seal many seem to think it is. Remove that dam and I think we'll be underwhelmed by the resulting deluge.

    The Mexican economy is already on a major upswing - within ten years or so, gringos may be climbing their own fence to go find jobs in Monterrey.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    No. GWB, Cheney and the rest were broadly supportive of an amnesty without conditions and immigration reform in the Kennedy model.

    The clamor for the fence was and has always been a grassroots thing.

  • Square||

    Now that you mention it that does sound familiar. I stand corrected.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    You know, if the majority of the American people wanted gun control, I would my representatives would tell the American People to go fuck themselves.

  • Almanian!||

    If increased immigration results in increased numbers of Mexicans in the US who subsequently open Mexican restaurants serving delicious food near to where I am or to where I travel, then...BONUS! Otherwise, I welcome our illegal visitors and invite them to spend money here and provide cheap labor for shit people want done. Viva la immigration!

  • ||

    I need to import more Korean and Vietnamese immigrants from Orange County. My pho options are great, but my banh mi options are limited, and Korean food is still way too expensive locally (and I'm too lazy to drive to Korea town).

    Do you have Peruvians where you live? If you don't you should push for some Peruvian immigration to your area. Lomo saltado is the bee's knees.

  • John||

    Peruvians do chicken like no other. If your area doesn't have a good Peruvian chicken place, I pity you.

  • Rich||

    A weird factoid: Peru leads the world in counterfeiting US currency.

  • John||

    I wonder why there? I would think it would be some place like North Korea or Dubai.

  • Rich||

  • Zeb||

    Doesn't Peru use US$ as their currency now? That could explain a lot of it.

  • ||

    Last time I hit the local Peruvian place they were just pulling chicken off the rotisserie and carting it around the restaurant. I went from being peckish to fall over hungry in about 15 seconds.

  • SugarFree||

    Peruvian food is so amazing. Salchipapas alone is enough for me to want to flung open the border. Their fried chicken and spin on fried rice is also supertasty.

    jesse, the key to bahn mi is to find a Vietnamese bakery. The nearby restaurants are likely to have sandwiches.

  • ||

    A chain banh mi place opened up a mile or two from my work. EDG had suggested the one in Long Beach when I'd complained about the lack of banh mi before. The food is solid, but about 40 minutes south of me it's wall to wall Vietnamese and you can get excellent banh mi, walk a block and find another excellent banh mi place.

  • ||

    If you love Peruvian, head down to Pollo Alla Brasa in Gardena, best chicken I've ever had, and they sell authentic anticuchos.

  • ||

    Huh, I was planning on trying a new Peruvian place tonight closer to me, but that's not much more of a drive. Maybe I'll try that instead.

  • ||

    Worth the drive, they have a huge pile of wood outside which they continuously feed their fire with, you can smell it a block away. And if you're one of them hipster folk, there's a great dive bar right next door called the desert room.

  • ||

    While I maintain that I am not a hipster, my friend group disagrees. Maybe I'll stop in for a drink.

  • Rich||

    That Immigrant Crossing sign is SEXIST!

  • Homple||

    Immigrants come to the to US to work hard and productively and raise their families to be responsible citizens. They will never use Affirmative Action protected class privileges or game the welfare system.

    They are much better behaved in these matters than native-born Americans. And they have, like, totally cool restaurants and vibrant cultures.

  • Square||

    I think you're largely right - my experience is that your typical illegal immigrant lives in near constant fear and would never consider coming within a block of a government agency, let alone actually enter one and start demanding services.

  • SIV||

    I see you've never been to the health department.

  • Zeb||

    What is the health department?

  • OneOut||

    Then why do all the food related stores in Texas have signs in Spanish saying that WIC is accepted here ?

    Even the most non assimilated American citizen can read enough English to know that WIC accepted here means that they can get free food there.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Yes. And...?

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    No. Massively expand the guest worker program and make long-term residency contingent on immigrants having a job, end welfare for immigrants, and make it harder to naturalize. Americans should not have to pay for their guests, either in monetary terms or in terms of further degradation of the political system.

  • Square||

    Allow businesses to hire whomever they damn well please. Make long-term residency contingent on the ability to pay rent/mortgage.

    People (Americans included) shouldn't have to pay for other people.

  • Calidissident||

    What is the "No" in reference to? I can't tell

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Open, unrestricted borders.

    Wide gate, tall fences.

  • ||

    The tall fences become less important the wider the gates are. I agree with having a robust guest worker program, but the easier it gets to come in legally to work, the harder it is for people to find coyotes who charge exorbitant fees and are likely to just leave you in the desert to die. The tall fences become a waste of resources.

  • Calidissident||

    "but the easier it gets to come in legally to work, the harder it is for people to find coyotes who charge exorbitant fees and are likely to just leave you in the desert to die."

    Not to mention, the number of people needing to do that drastically declines.

  • ||

    Exactly. I suppose I skipped why it would be harder to find coyotes. Demand for coyotes decrease the number of people willing to do the work decreases, people available to mule drugs through rat infested drainage pipes decreases, border security gets cheaper.

  • BakedPenguin||

    THIS. Also, for anyone with any concern about human trafficking, (more) open borders and an end to laws against voluntary prostitution would help greatly.

  • opendna||

    "make it harder to naturalize"

    You know that it literally takes an Act of Congress to naturalize for in less than five years, right? You can pull it off in five years and change if you marry an American and hit all the dates *just* right, but most people are waiting upwards of a decade. I met people in the mid-2000s who were still carrying their temp papers from the Reagan Amnesty.

    How much harder would you like it to get?

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  • DarrenM||

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    Meanwhile the enlightened officials in CA have decided that they don't like Democracy after all.

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