There's good news and bad news on the immigration front.
The good news is that there are 1 million fewer illegal aliens than in 2007.
The bad news is that the decline in the illegal population stopped when Barack Obama was inaugurated.
From January 2007 to January 2009, the illegal population is estimated to have dropped from 11.8 million to 10.8 million. In the following two years, however, there was no further decline; a government estimate for January 2011 expected to be released soon is likely to be about 10.9 million.
The decline was obviously caused, in part, by the weak economy, but that was not the only factor. After all, the illegal population started dropping before the recession began, the halt in the decline happened when the economy was still terrible.
In fact, immigration law played a big part -- stepped-up enforcement at the tail end of the Bush administration helped start the decline and weakened enforcement by the current White House helped halt the decline.
In other words, "self-deportation" works -- when you try it. Such a strategy, more properly called "attrition through enforcement," aims at making it impractical for illegal aliens to live here through across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law. As a result, a significant number of illegal immigrants would leave on their own.
When the 2007 push for amnesty failed in Congress, President Bush gave his grudging and belated approval to an enforcement crackdown. Factories were raided, illegal immigrants caught at the border were prosecuted rather than just thrown back, cooperation with local law enforcement was stepped up. Even the significant increase in deportations served the self-deportation goal because not only were more people forcibly removed, but those removals sent a message to others who were never caught that they should go home voluntarily before they were arrested.
This success shouldn't have been a surprise. Illegal immigrants are people like any other and when they face a different set of incentives, their behavior will change. After 9/11, the biggest group of illegal immigrants focused on by the government were Pakistanis, who left on their own in droves.
As the result of a 2007 Arizona law requiring all businesses in the state to use the online E-Verify system to screen new hires for legal status, the state's illegal population fell by 17 percent, according to the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Of course, reducing enforcement sends a different message, which is why the number of illegal immigrants stopped declining during the first two years of the Obama term. The administration has issued "prosecutorial discretion" memos telling immigration agents to ignore illegal immigrants who weren't also violent criminals, terrorist or drug smugglers. In other words, ordinary illegal aliens are being told, repeatedly and openly, that they have nothing to worry about so long as their offenses are limited to immigration violations, identity theft, tax fraud, and the like.
The administration is also pursuing high-profile lawsuits against states, like Arizona and Alabama, that are trying to help the federal government with immigration enforcement. What's more, worksite raids have been banned, replaced by audits of personnel files, causing some illegal immigrants to be fired but not to be taken into custody.
And the implicit message sent by such measures is made explicit when the president repeatedly says he wants to legalize -- give amnesty to -- the illegal population. Words have consequences; a Border Patrol agent told me recently that the day after the 2008 election, two illegal aliens approached him near a gap in the fence and asked if they could come in now since Obama had won.
Imagine the effect of such actions and words on illegal aliens already living here who were considering returning home; many seem to have put those plans on hold to see if amnesty would pan out, leading to the halt in the decline of the illegal population.
Perhaps at some point in the future a debate on amnesty will be necessary; not all illegal aliens can be induced to go home, after all. But many can, and we'll never know how many until we try. The current administration's unwillingness to enforce the law has halted what would otherwise likely have been a significant further reduction in the illegal population.
Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
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