The most comprehensive overview of illegal immigration in the United States since the economic crisis began its downward spiral concludes that the flow of unauthorized immigrants into the country has significantly slowed. The annual inflow of unauthorized immigrants was "nearly two-thirds smaller in the March 2007 to March 2009 period than it had been from March 2000 to March 2005." The report released last week by the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center also concludes that the total number of unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States has dropped by an estimated one million.
These findings have become a kind of Rorschach test: everyone is projecting what they want to see into the numbers and graphs. While the Pew researchers, masters of their trade, carefully avoid any causal statements as to what may be behind the numbers, it seems everybody else is attaching their pet ideas to the new data.
To those who see immigration -- including unauthorized immigration -- as the yin to the yang of American business, this was an "it's the economy, stupid" moment. The economic collapse, they argue, reduced the flow of unauthorized labor to the homeland, as the cornucopia of jobs that pulled them with unstoppable force into the booming economy suddenly evaporated. For those who oppose all immigration, the new figures are proof positive that "attrition through containment" is working. The new multipronged strategy for combating unauthorized immigration includes expanded deportations in the mainland and unprecedented displays of power at the border. Proponents of the tough "attrition through containment" approach claim that the massive deportation campaign -- rapidly intensified under President Obama -- coupled with the greatly expanded deployment of force at the border is exactly the right formula to put an end the problem of mass illegal immigration in the United States.
This formula, alas, is fool's gold.
While the number of unauthorized migrants is indeed down, the most surprising pattern in the new data evokes Sherlock Holmes' story about the dog that didn't bark. It's elemental, Holmes deduced: since the dog did not bark, whoever killed the horse in the barn must have been the master of the barn dog.
The most important variable in the new report is what did not happen under unprecedented circumstances. We are in the midst of the most severe economic recession since the great depression (sharply reducing the incentives for new migration), we are in the midst of the most extensive deportation campaign in recent history (last year 393,000 immigrants were deported from the United States -- the seventh consecutive record high, according to the Department of Homeland Security), and in the midst of the largest growth in monetary and personnel allocations for border enforcement (between 1990 and today, the U.S. increased the border patrol from a force of 3,733 to 20,000. The combined expenditure in 2009 for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was a staggering $14.9 billion -- and that is not counting the drones now fully operational in our Southern border.) The crossing is more expensive now than ever before. Tougher border controls have been a boom for smugglers -- unlike in the past, today almost everyone crossing the border without papers relies on expensive and dangerous coyotes even as deaths at the border have reached historic records. Yet we continue to have an estimated annual rate of new illegal immigration into the country of 300,000 and, most importantly, we still have over 11 million immigrants without papers. A North to South inertia is the new normal -- immigrants in the U.S. are staying put. Even if the sharply reduced inflows remain at this new low, other things being equal, at the current rate of deportations, it could take over two generations to rid the U.S. of all the unauthorized immigrants.
Those who oppose immigration, first and foremost, oppose illegal immigration. It reveals the failure of government in its most basic task -- setting and regulating international borders, especially urgent in the aftermath of September 11. Unauthorized immigration corrodes the rule of law by unmasking the systemic failure of enforcement. It undermines public trust -- the most important lubricant for social cohesion. Massive unauthorized immigration rewards those who do not play by the rules, punishing would-be migrants patiently waiting their turn, the anti-immigrant chorus incants. It cheapens the value of citizenship and casts suspicion on the status of all legal immigrants. Unauthorized immigration has created a sub-caste of citizen children who through no fault of their own are growing up in the shadows of their country. Unauthorized immigrants, by definition, break one law - upon their unauthorized entry into the United States. No one can be pro illegal immigration.
But such immigrants are not from the other side of the moon. They are working folk who are not only staying put but are growing roots in the U.S. Nearly half of all unauthorized immigrants live in households with a partner and children. The majority of these children, 79 percent, are U.S. citizens by birth. The number of U.S. children growing up in unauthorized families has grown from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million in 2008. Adding the 1.1 million unauthorized children living in the U.S. means that there are 5.1 million children currently living in what are termed "mixed-status" homes.
Over the last generation, unauthorized immigration has been closely tied to labor market predilections in the low-skilled sector of the American economy. Like it or not, in the roaring 1990's the nation developed an insatiable appetite for immigrant labor -- summoning millions of unauthorized folk to do the jobs abandoned by native workers. Illegal immigration did not happen to us. We were all complicit in it's making.
The United States of Helplessness
Thus, we are now in a very unhappy place. The U.S. has the largest number and proportion of unauthorized immigrants in the world: we are under five percent of the world's population but have approximately twenty percent of all illegal migrants on earth. This is happening as we face the deepest economic crisis since the great depression -- war, terrorism on a global scale, and a neighbor to the south convulsed by a drug war. We have never seen such a combination of noxious ingredients. Immigration makes Barack Obama President of the United States of Helplessness. All immigration lines are broken: the line at the border, the queues in U.S. consulates, and in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration offices all over the homeland. Those who argue that to fix this all we need is for illegal immigrants to get behind the line, did not get the memo: there is no line to get behind. There are over three million people waiting between four to twenty years to join immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens and permanent migrants. If you are a U.S. citizen and your sister is in the Philippines you will have to wait twenty years before she can join you. If you are a U.S. citizen and would like to sponsor your unmarried adult child in Mexico, you will wait sixteen years. And if you are a start-up in Massachusetts and set out to hire a skilled Indian worker with college education and proven experience in her field, you will pay $13,000 in fees and wait 20 years. Out of this chaos we need to build a 21st Century migration system.
What will it take to get moving again?
First we need to choose a path at the proverbial fork for dealing with unauthorized immigrants already here. To deal with the issue systemically, rather than on a piece meal basis, one path would be to massively expand the current rate of deportations. It would be at an unknown and surely significant economic, legal, and social cost. Two consecutive Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have rejected the notion that the U.S. could mount a one-time massive experiment rounding up and deporting 11 million folk.
There is another path. It is based on the idea of belonging and consent in a democracy and what Sigal Ben Porath of the University of Pennsylvania calls "shared fate." We propose a set of coherent principles requiring unauthorized migrants here to pass a "belonging threshold." These principles privilege the foundations of social cohesion and shared fate in a plural society: meaningful family ties, work, and community roots. Those with a history of work, paying taxes, good character, and engagement in the public sphere by learning the language, U.S. history, and about U. S. government would be eligible to regularize their immigration status. It is constructed on the bedrock of consent in the mutual relationship between the nation and individuals with a record of engagement in jobs, in neighborhoods, and in the public sphere. Unauthorized immigrants are not unknown entities from another galaxy: we have sealed our shared fate by bringing them into our homes as nannies and gardeners, by hiring them to cook our meals at restaurants and to clean our bathrooms in hotels, by making them our co-workers, our fellow worshipers at church, our children's classmates and friends. It would add nothing that is not de facto already part of the family of the nation.
Working out the details of a program to end the dystopia is hardly rocket science. It will require political muscle and bipartisanship. Any serious, disinterested researcher in the field of immigration will tell you what a real formula -- alas, not another formula for fool's gold -- will look like. But first the administration and congress will need to find the political will to make migration work. This is not likely to happen, if at all, until after the midterm elections. If the mid-term elections are a debacle for Barack Obama and he is destined to be a one-term president, perhaps it will take a new "Nixon-to-China" moment when a new Republican president succeeds where President George W. Bush failed.
The possible combinations to make migration work are few and obvious. We would suggest a three-phase program of action. Passing each phase would be a rite de passage moving folk into the open. The first phase would be the creation of a national registry where unauthorized immigrants who have been here for three years would sign an affidavit acknowledging their unlawful entry into the United States. Second, they would undergo a background security check. They would supply evidence of a meaningful history of work and tax payments. Lastly they would furnish proof of good character in the form of three affidavits from community leaders such as a supervisor, a teacher, or a religious figure.
In the second phase, those who qualify would pay a $6,500 fine that would serve both as a penalty and for breaking the law upon entry and as a fee to cover the program's costs ($6,500 is half what it costs the average U.S. employer today in fees to process and recruit a new immigrant worker from overseas. It is only slightly more than what immigrants now pay coyotes at the border to cross them illegally.) Lastly, in a third phase, they would complete a course study of English, U.S. history, and U. S. government. The courses would serve as a foundation for a systemic integration strategy, which should be in place for all new Americans, see here.
This plan would work if at the same time the incentives for further unauthorized immigration were meaningfully reduced by, inter alia, clamping down on unscrupulous employers hiring workers without papers. Of course, good fences make for good neighbors. With the good news of dramatically slowed attempted crossings at the border, there is now a window of opportunity. Given what we know about the unauthorized immigrants in our midst, it is safe a safe bet that the majority would sign up, qualify, and pass the threshold.
It is time to create a rational and principled path out of the shadows. Anything less will keep us where we don't want to be, in The United States of Helplessness.
Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Carola Suárez-Orozco are Co-Directors of Immigration Studies @ NYU. Their forthcoming book is entitled, Lifting the Lamp: Shedding Light on Immigration Dilemmas.