August 7, 2008

August 7, 2008 | Commentary on Immigration

Immigration question

It never occurred to us that moving to Fairfax County from the District would be a bit like moving to a foreign country. During the week we have been in our new home, we have had maintenance crews from Mexico, and our garden has been done by an elegant Chilean garden service owner. The cable installation was done by a Venezuelan; our cleaning lady is from Bolivia; and the baby-sitter from Peru. To many Americans, this would not seem a surprising state of affairs as the country has gotten used to the luxury of plentiful manual labor from south of the border.

However, a conversation with the cable guy (no, not Larry) seemed to confirm the results of recent news reports - that the American dream is not what it used to be for people seeking a future in the United States. Having been here for 26 years and closing on 50 years of age, the cable guy said he was determined to return to Venezuela if he did not find a wife within the next few years.

Like other populations of immigrants - who have come to the United States in search of a dream and a better future, only to see a sizable minority return home after failing to achieve either - Hispanic immigrants are not automatically and inexorably attracted to the United States. They make rational choices, calculating pros and cons of making this difficult personal, and in some cases, dangerous journey.

A recent study by the Center for Immigration Studies suggests that this is particularly true of the illegal population in the United States. Census data for May show that migration by less-educated Hispanics dropped off by 11 percent between last August and May. This would be the equivalent of a dropoff from 12.5 million to 11.2 million in the estimated illegal population. (Mind you, all these estimates are approximations, even though treated like facts carved in rock during the immigration debate.)

The authors of the report write, "The estimated decline of the illegal population is at least seven times larger than the number of illegal aliens removed by the government in the last 10 months, so most of the decline is due to illegal immigrants leaving their country on their own."

Corroborating evidence that the flow of migration is dropping is cited in the Economist magazine, which reports that the torrent of migration across the Mexican border has dropped off year by year since 2000 - judging by the number of arrests made by the U.S. Border Patrol. Today, the Economist estimates that the flow is only half of what it was in 2000 when 1.64 million arrests were made.

Furthermore, a countrywide poll of migrants published by the Inter-American development Bank in April indicates that the flow of remittances going south is slowing. In 2006, three-quarters of migrants sent money home; this year, just half reported doing so.

The most likely causes of the downturn in migration from the south are: tougher law enforcement along the border and more proactive checks of the legality of their workforce among employers. These policies, while controversial and the subject of heated objection here among immigration advocates, are undoubtedly having an effect. Another factor that is certainly having an effect is the slow down of the U.S. economy, which has made migrants particularly vulnerable. The construction business has been hard-hit, for instance, with a loss of 220,000 migrant jobs last year. The jobless rate for this population group is 2 percent to 4 percent higher than the national average, according to research by the Pew Hispanic Center published in June.

At the very least, all of this data suggests that the terms of the raging immigration debate last year were incorrect. Migration or even immigration is not an all-or-nothing proposition, as it was presented. Immigration activists and proponents of the "comprehensive" immigration legislation insisted that you either legalize the estimated 12 million illegally in this country or you send them home by forcible deportation - a choice that most Americans would find unacceptable.

Instead, what common sense and the evidence suggest is that the answer to the problem may be complex, but not as intractable as previously assumed. Better border control, law enforcement, attrition, the state of the U.S. economy and rational choices made by illegal immigrants about their own welfare, are all part of the mix. Unfortunately, all of these factors are so easily boiled down to a political slogan or two - which as we all know is the preferred type of discourse in a presidential election year.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times