Have we turned the corner on illegal immigration?

One of the hot buttons of the Bush presidency and the 2008 presidential campaign was illegal immigration and how to slow or stop it. Bush’s plan was decried as amnesty, and many conservatives have excoriated McCain over his softness on illegal immigration.

Some interesting developments have occurred in this area over the last several months:

  • “Self-deportations” have begun to take place as individual states have cracked down on illegals and forced them either to other states or to return home to Mexico and/or other countries. Arizona and Oklahoma have been particularly effective in driving out illegals via new, tough laws – but many of those illegals are simply moving to greener US pastures, such as Texas. This appears to lend credence to the theory that self-deportation, or “attrition through enforcement” could have a significant impact in forcing many illegals out by means other than overt deportation.
  • The “border fence” IS being built. A map on the Customers & Border Protection web site shows the progress on the fence/wall, which is in various stages of construction all the way from San Diego to El Paso. As Mark Krikorian points out at The Corner, this isn’t just the “virtual fence,” but is the real deal.
  • The economy seems to be having a substantial impact on the ability of illegals to find work in the US. In fact, as one would hope, US citizens are now “intruding” on a job market that was previously almost solely populated by illegal immigrants. The WSJ reports this week that U.S. workers are “crowding out” immigrant labor.

    For the first time in a decade, unskilled immigrants are competing with Americans for work. And evidence is emerging that tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants are withdrawing from the labor market as U.S. workers crowd them out of potential jobs. At least some of the foreigners are returning home.

    “We see competition from more nonimmigrant workers,” says Abel Valenzuela, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies day laborers. “Employers are also paying less than in previous years,” he says.

    In the third quarter of 2008, 71.3% of Latino immigrant workers were either employed or actively seeking work, compared with 72.4% in the same quarter a year earlier, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization. The 1.1-percentage-point drop “marks a substantial decrease in the labor-market participation of Latino immigrants,” says Rakesh Kochhar, the Pew economist who prepared the report.

    It appears that U.S. citizens are even moving into the agricultural job market, where immigrants once were dominant. The result of all this is that the immigrant unemployment rate is rising rapidly, and it’s having an impact on the number of illegals in the U.S.

    The unemployment rate for immigrant Latinos was 6.4% in the third quarter of 2008, compared with 4.5% during last year’s third quarter. However, the rise in unemployment for this group would have been even greater “if not for the fact that many of these workers withdrew from the labor market,” says the Pew report.

    If they hadn’t exited the U.S. labor market, the Pew study estimates, their unemployment rate for the third quarter would have been 7.8%, 3.3 percentage points higher than the same quarter last year.

    Among Hispanic immigrants who entered the U.S. between 1990 and 1999, the survey found that 217,000 quit the labor force between the third quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2008. Since population falls as a result of individual death or emigration from the U.S., “these trends suggest that at least some foreign-born Latinos are not only leaving the labor force but, perhaps, also returning to their countries of origin,” the report said.

The net seems to be that a combination of “enforcement through attrition” and the economic downturn has resulted in a significant decline in illegals within the U.S. borders. From the Center for Immigration Studies:

Now there is research showing that attrition through enforcement works. A new report from the Center for Immigration Studies (which I head) used Census Bureau surveys to estimate that the illegal-immigrant population has fallen from a peak of 12.5 million in August of last year down to 11.2 million this past May, a drop of 1.3 million or 11 percent. This decline is at least seven times larger than the number people removed from the country by the immigration authorities during that period, meaning that most of the drop was due to illegal immigrants deporting themselves. If that rate of decrease were to continue, the illegal population would be cut in half in five years.

The WSJ article and other sources make a strong case for the effect of the economic downturn on the departure of illegals from the country, and in fact it has probably had a fairly substantial impact. Is that the chief cause of the improvement, or is it “enforcement?”

…Though the slowdown in construction and other industries no doubt contributed to the decline, there are several reasons to think that enforcement was a major factor in the decision of illegal immigrants to leave. First of all, the decline in the number of illegal immigrants started before their unemployment rate increased; in the past, much smaller dips had been seen in the illegal population, but only after their unemployment rate increased — which stands to reason, of course. What’s more, only the illegal population declined; the number of legal immigrants continued to grow.

The continued “self-deportation” trend would seem to put to bed the meme “we can’t just deport all 12M of them” that emerged during the debate of the Bush/Kennedy immigration “reform” package. However, it remains to be seen if this trend will continue and/or if the border fence has an impact in the long run. Another wild card is the Obama administration and what it will do to either continue the ICE’s policy of more stringent enforcement or to back off on the current strategy. Based upon Obama’s campaign trail statements, I don’t have much confidence that enforcement will be at the top of their list.