President Barack Obama's administration said in July that it would give immigration officials more leeway to choose not to deport people who came here illegally, but have lived in the United States for most of their lives, committed no other crime, or have family here—particularly those who are active duty service members.
Republican soup of the day Newt Gingrich has promised something similar: A "path to legality" (but not citizenship) for illegal immigrants who have "deep ties to America, including family, church and community ties," plus jobs, English skills, and their own health coverage.
Republican nominee wannabe Mitt Romney has roused from his slumber to attack Gingrich for supporting amnesty, but is on record having backed an awfully familiar sounding proposal in 2006 that "those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship, as they would from their home country."
But for now, deportations are on the rise, with the Obama administration recently celebrating its 1 millionth booted immigrant (an impressive increase over George W. Bush's record—he managed only 1.5 million deportations total during his presidency), even as overall immigration has declined in the last three years, likely as a result of less appealing economic conditions. The total population of illegal immigrants is tough to measure (for obvious reasons) but sits somewhere between 8 and 12 million people.
Two new reports give a clearer portrait of the people who come to the U.S. illegally, and what they mean to their adoptive country.
The first, a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of Census data, finds that 65 percent of illegal immigrants have been in the country for 10 years or more, with only 15 percent residing in the U.S. for less than five years. And the share of longhaulers has increased, doubling since 2000.
Nearly half of unauthorized adult immigrants have a minor child, compared with just 38 percent of legal immigrants and 29 percent of U.S.-born adults. Most of the difference is explained by the fact that illegal immigrants are mostly young adults in their prime childbearing years.
Those facts combine to create a situation where 9 million people are in mixed-status families—which include at least one illegal immigrant adult and one U.S.-born child. There are also 400,000 illegal immigrant children who have U.S.-born siblings.
In other words, a significant majority of illegal immigrants likely fit neatly into the "good illegals" box created by various major party candidates. They're people who have come to the U.S. to stay and raise families. And whatever services they take from the government, those families provide the U.S. with the ultimate resource, more people.
Or at least they do for now. Hispanics make up 81 percent of the population of illegal immigrants in the U.S., which makes a second set of findings highly relevant: Data from the National Center for Health Statistics reveals a dramatic drop in births among Hispanics. The number of babies born to Hispanics is down 11 percent since 2007. Hispanics account for a quarter of all U.S. births and half of the country's population growth. USA Today reports that in 9 percent of the nation's 3,141 counties, the population would have declined if Hispanics had not moved in, citing University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson.
The astronomical fertility of illegal immigrants has been presented as a menace, but the presence of illegal and mixed-status families within our borders is the only thing keeping U.S. fertility figures bobbing around at replacement rate. But the drop in birthrates in the face of declining economic conditions suggests that opening our borders wider may be the only way to maintain that record.
A May Pew study found that 72 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship (not just legality) for illegal immigrants who have jobs, pass a background check, and are willing to pay fines—which is a better deal than either party's politicians are willing to offer at this point.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of Reason magazine.