A Losing Immigration Strategy

To say we need more enforcement to seal the border is like saying we should re-invade Iraq.


Everyone in Washington is showing new interest in immigration reform. President Barack Obama needs to do something to cement the loyalty of Hispanics, who did so much to re-elect him. Republicans seem to grasp that they had better soften their hard line unless they want to forfeit any hope with Latinos and Asian-Americans.

Both sides also agree that a balanced, two-part approach is in order: stricter enforcement and improved border security on one hand and a pathway to legalization on the other. It's an excellent plan—except for that first part.

To say we need more enforcement to seal the border is like saying we should re-invade Iraq. In the first place, we've already ramped up enforcement in every way imaginable. In the second place, it hasn't solved the problem—and in fact has largely backfired.

We don't need "comprehensive" legislation. What we need is realism: Accept that millions of foreigners are living here illegally and are not going to "self-deport"—and that we (and they) will be better off if they gain the protection of the law.

The draconian measures needed to get rid of them all are no longer politically possible, if they ever were. And they probably wouldn't work anyway.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." Enforcement enthusiasts think the same is true of their preferred option. From them, you would think every migrant sneaking across the Arizona border only had to get by an unarmed attendant sitting in a folding chair and playing Angry Birds on an iPhone.

In fact, the southern border increasingly resembles the Berlin Wall. Border security has become the poster child of big government programs that conservatives typically abhor. It never succeeds, and every failure becomes the rationale for additional funding.

Since 2001, the U.S. Border Patrol budget has tripled. The number of agents, which was about 4,000 in 1992, has ballooned to some 21,000 today. But the number of apprehensions has fallen by two-thirds in the past five years.

Latino voters broke heavily for Obama even though he set records for deporting undocumented migrants. Under him, deportations per month have been more than 50 percent higher than under George W. Bush—and three times higher than under Bill Clinton.

If we haven't solved the illegal immigration problem, it's not for lack of enforcement. We've already done that part of the "comprehensive" approach.

What's it gotten us? The number of undocumented foreigners living here rose steadily until 2008, when the busted economy made America a less alluring destination. It's not fair to say that the illegal population grew in spite of our sternest efforts to reduce it. It's more accurate to say it happened because of those efforts.

In the old days, most people who came illegally didn't stay for long. They showed up, worked for a while and returned home. But when border crossings became more difficult, perilous and expensive, many of them chose to remain in this country permanently rather than leave and risk not being able to get back.

"It was thus a sharp decline in the outflow of undocumented migrants, not an increase in the inflow of undocumented migrants, that was responsible for the acceleration of undocumented population growth during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this decline in return migration was to a great extent a product of U.S. enforcement efforts," wrote Princeton scholars Douglas Massey and Karen Pren in a recent issue of Population and Development Review.

Why we should be reluctant to accept these striving newcomers, who almost invariably work hard and stay out of trouble, is a puzzle. The punitive approach is particularly unfair in the case of those who were brought here as children and have become Americans in all the customary ways, through no fault of their own.

But maybe all the talk about tougher enforcement is just a way for our leaders to cover their shift to an overdue accommodation of the illegal immigrants in our midst.

The choice is not between letting them stay and making them leave: We have already proved that we can't force them out. The choice is between adjusting the law to fit the stubborn facts of life and persisting in measures to make their lives miserable. The latter is a proven loser, in more ways than one.