On Immigration, a Dissent

I just listened to the flagship podcast (Rob shamed me into becoming a member, after I freeloaded during the days before it went behind the paywall) and I wanted to register a dissent from something Peter said about immigration. He said something to the effect that large-scale immigration was “over” or “finished” – implying that addressing the status of illegal aliens living here would now be easier.

The report he was relying on, from Pew, said that net migration from Mexico was zero in the 2005-2010 period – i.e., there was still a significant amount of immigration from Mexico (almost all of it illegal), but roughly the same number of Mexicans already living here left, resulting in no net change. This is a real finding, and it owes to both the state of the economy and to better law enforcement – my research director reached a similar conclusion. But there are lots of problems with drawing policy conclusions from that:

1. Pew counted the US-born, US-citizen children in Mexican immigrant families as part of the “Mexican” outflow – but, of course, they’re not immigrants, so net immigration was still positive.

2. Our goal should be more illegal immigrants leaving than coming in, so a net level of zero is a move in the right direction, but is hardly reaching the goal. (“Mexican immigrant” and “illegal immigrant” are obviously not the same thing, but they’re closely related – 60 percent of illegal aliens are from Mexico and virtually all Mexican immigrants either are, or were at one point, illegal.)

3. Most immigration is legal – 1.1 million a year, and it never goes down – and the problems created by mass illegal immigration aren’t really that different from the ones created by mass legal immigration.

4. The real slowdown in illegal immigration has almost certainly already ended, with numbers already climbing again.

5. There are 5 billion people in the world poorer than the average Mexican, so immigration is not something we’re ever going to “solve” – thus we can never escape having to make decisions about how much we want, how we pick people, and how we will enforce the law to prevent the admission (or effect the removal) of the millions who want to come but don’t meet our criteria.

I addressed this “immigration as yesterday’s news” meme in a piece earlier this year for The National Interest. My lead was from a January New York Times op-ed that began: “The immigration crisis that has roiled American politics for decades has faded into history.”

Would that it were true.