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The Perpetual Border Battle

The Perpetual Border Battle

Mini Teaser: Though some pundits insist illegal immigration is fading as a national problem, careful study of the border situation suggests otherwise. The challenge remains serious, and large enforcement gaps persist.

by Author(s): Mark Krikorian

What’s more, there’s evidence that immigrants are capturing a disproportionate share of whatever new jobs are being created. A Center for Immigration Studies report looking specifically at Texas found that, from 2007 through the second quarter of 2011, 81 percent of job growth went to newly arrived immigrants, half of them illegal aliens.

The vicissitudes of the economy obviously can’t be relied on to limit illegal immigration. So to the degree that the economy is the cause for the current lull, it would seem to be temporary. That raises a question: Even with the return of strong job growth, would the new enforcement measures continue to blunt renewed pressure for illegal immigration?

President Obama’s answer would appear to be yes. Speaking in El Paso last year, he outlined various improvements in border enforcement, then mocked those still dissatisfied:

But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time. . . . You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.

Obama’s mockery implies the country has done everything a nation can possibly do to control immigration, that the recent improvements complete the infrastructure necessary for border control and that it’s time to move on to other things—namely, amnesty for the illegal immigrants already here and increases in future legal immigration.

Unfortunately, this is not true. Much needs to be done before the United States has the enforcement arrangements necessary to permanently reduce illegal immigration to a nuisance rather than an ongoing crisis. Start at the border. The increases in the Border Patrol over the past fifteen years have been real, but even at a staff level of twenty-one thousand, the agency—responsible for more than 7,500 miles of our land frontiers—is smaller than the New York City Police Department, which has 34,500 uniformed officers. Furthermore, the improvements in fencing are often exaggerated. Of the nearly seven hundred miles of physical barriers along our southern border, a large portion are Normandy barriers, designed to stop vehicular incursions across the border but of no use in stopping people on foot. What’s more, when Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, it imagined double fencing of the kind south of San Diego. In fact, only about 1 percent of the border has a double layer.

This is why the Government Accountability Office reported last year that only 44 percent of the border is under “operational control,” with only 15 percent actually “controlled” (the tightest level of security). That 44 percent figure is triple what it was in 2005, but it’s hard to say a task is complete when it’s not even half done.

The high level of deportations is likewise deceptive. The administration likes to boast of “record” deportations, but the other half of the story is that the growth in deportations has stopped. The reason annual deportations have been just under four hundred thousand during this administration is that the White House refuses to ask Congress for the funds to increase it further. Like the child on trial for killing his parents who then pleads for mercy as an orphan, the administration has created the very resource constraints it points to as the reason for not increasing deportations further.

Beyond that, some key enforcement tools remain unused. The E-Verify system is working well, but its effectiveness is necessarily limited until it is required for all new hires. Regrettably, the president is holding that change hostage in exchange for amnesty for illegal immigrants. In other words, he (and many in both parties who share his perspective) will accept the tool needed to exclude illegal immigrants from the workforce only after amnesty has ensured there are no more illegal aliens left in the workforce.

Another potentially valuable tool that is still not fully functional is a system to track all entries and exits by foreign visitors. As noted above, a large share of the illegal population was admitted legally in some sort of temporary status and never left. But despite a congressional mandate passed in the 1996 immigration-reform bill and reiterated by the 9/11 Commission, we still have no fully functional exit-tracking program and no plans to build one. The lack of such an elementary capability makes a mockery of the claim that our immigration infrastructure is complete.

And then there’s the problem of political will. Even the improvements we’ve put in place over the past fifteen years are of little benefit if they are not used properly. And the current administration has announced that, as a matter of policy, it will seek to arrest and deport only those illegal immigrants who have committed serious, nonimmigration offenses. In a series of memos encouraging agents in the field to exercise their “prosecutorial discretion,” the administration made clear that it views illegal presence in the United States (and all its ancillary crimes, such as document fraud and identity theft) as a secondary offense, like not buckling your seat belt while driving. In other words, they seek to pursue immigration offenses only in conjunction with other crimes. That means they will deport a rapist after he has completed his U.S. prison sentence, but they are uninterested in ordinary illegal aliens.

While prioritizing limited resources is part of any enforcement regime, this wholesale downgrade of an entire body of law is unprecedented. It’s as though the Internal Revenue Service were to announce that ordinary citizens who are not terrorists or money launderers don’t need to comply with the tax law because, as a matter of policy, no one would pursue them. The unprecedented and even lawless nature of the administration’s approach is perhaps why so many immigration agents in the field have simply refused to obey what they see as an illegal order—one even their labor union said they should resist.

Do these things matter if the supply of illegal immigrants is drying up? Unfortunately, lack of sufficient enforcement remains a problem. Lower fertility and declining population are no guarantee that emigration from Mexico will come to an end. Emigration is not analogous to an overflowing cup that stops spilling liquid when the level falls. Migration is based on networks of family, clan and village that can continue to operate long after the conditions that may have sparked the original emigration have disappeared. For example, the states of western-central Mexico—far from the border—that sent farmworkers in the 1940s and 1950s through the so-called bracero program are still disproportionately important sending areas nearly a lifetime after the program began.

Looking at fertility rates in other countries confirms that low birthrates and low emigration are not necessarily connected. Mexico’s current TFR is almost identical to that of other countries of emigration—Burma and Indonesia—but also the same as countries of immigration—Saudi Arabia and Argentina. Likewise, South Korea and Russia have some of the lowest TFRs in the world—1.23 and 1.42, respectively. In fact, Russia’s population is already declining and is expected to fall about 11 percent by midcentury. And yet both South Korea and Russia are major source countries for immigration to the United States. Though correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, in both cases the U.S. immigrant populations from those countries have risen just as fertility rates have fallen.

And there’s always the rest of the world. Mexicans account for more than half of the current illegal population, but close to another 20 percent comes from Central America, which is even poorer and less developed. And TFRs are still very high in much of Africa and the Middle East. The importance of networks means we get little immigration from, say, Chad, but the U.S. legal-immigration system, especially refugee resettlement and the visa lottery, actually creates new networks for future illegal immigration.

As important as it is to have a functioning immigration-control program, legal immigration is ultimately more consequential. Of the forty million foreign-born people living in the United States, nearly three-quarters of them are legal. Even in 2008–2009, during the two years of the worst recession in living memory, 2.5 million people moved here from abroad, most of them legally. And the problems associated with illegal immigration—burdens on schools, pressure on public services, even wage suppression—have nothing to do with legal status and everything to do with numbers. For example, a fourth of all people in the United States living in poverty are immigrants (legal and illegal) and their young children. Immigrant families account for a third of the uninsured, while 36 percent of immigrant households use at least one federal welfare program.

Image: Pullquote: The Government Accountability Office reported last year that only 44 percent of the border is under “operational control.” It’s hard to say a task is complete when it’s not even half done.Essay Types: Essay