Getting some perspective on illegal immigration.

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The Bush administration is planning to station 6000 National Guard troops along the Mexican border. It's worth getting some perspective on the problem. Some reports which are useful for getting a handle on the issue are the 2003 USCIS report report and the Pew report here

Relevant points:

  • The number of illegals is at what's probably an all-time high of 11 million or so.
  • The total foreign-born population is order 37 million.
  • The rate of illegal immigration has accelerated somewhat in the last 10 years or so, but the increase is fairly gradual, say 20-30%, so if there's a crisis--and I'm not saying there is--the important difference is in absolute numbers not changes in the rate.
  • INS enforcement is practically worthless: in 1999, only 63,000 (less than 10% of the total entries and less than 15% of the total increase) were removed by the INS.
  • The "problem" is overwhelmingly concentrated in a small number of states. In 2000, over 50% of illegal immigrants were in just three states: California, Texas, and New York (27% of the total US population collectively).

The thing I'm having the most trouble getting out of these reports is why this has suddenly become such a big national issue. I suspect it's more of a public psychology issue in response to the war and a bad economy than it is a rational response to changing conditions, but it could just be that I'm missing something.


bingo. it's a political diversion to tap into resentment which is the most contagious of all emotions.

It's a big issue right now because the illegals went on strike and demanded rights and recognition from the American government.

Before that, it was because wages were stagnant, and politicians needed someone to blame. Note that the economy has been quite strong - it's just that the wages haven't kept up with the capital growth. IOW, it's been a good few years to own stocks.

JB, you have the cause and effect mixed up there. The going on strike thing was a response to immigration becoming a big issue and that pretty awful immigration bill in Congress. Fuel to the fire, perhaps, but it certainly didn't cause anything.

My money's on resentment over wages, 9/11 and xenophobia, and all the Republicans' other issues turning to shit.

The other part of this is that this is an issue that can divide the Republicans in much the same way gay marriage divided the Democrats. The president was in a much better position to keep this kind of issue from coming up earlier in his administration. Now, he's obviously in decline, he can't run again in any event, many of his most powerful allies in congress are in bad shape, and he's lost a lot of his ability to control what issues come up like this.

It's pure theatre of distraction, and anyone looking for cause beyond the war's progress, flood of scandals, and national mood in the wake of oil costs is just missing the point. It's "Look over there!" on a national scale.

Couldn't agree more with the previous commenters - this was a non-issue that the Republican machine suddenly featured as a diversion. I recommend the David Mamet movie "Wag the Dog" to see this technique illustrated.

I think actually most polls are showing that people don't really give that much of a shit about illegal immigration (relative to other major issues). I think that even with the recent GOP-led discussion on immigration, the issue is still barely making it into the top ten political issues that people care about when polled.

I think what happened is something along these lines:

1. GWB/Rove thought that they could lock up the Hispanic vote in Texas, New Mexico, California and possibly New York for the GOP for the next couple decades by dealing with immigration "right". Bush's immigration plans when he was first running in 2000 were actually not hideously bad. I think a governor of Texas he pretty well figured out that "send them all back" is more or less unworkable, and that you need to basically let all these folks have a path to becoming legitimate. Probably you need a guest worker program or some other formal rejiggering of the current visa program to allow more folks to come and go on an ongoing basis. But from the political future point of view, you obviously want as many of those grateful workers to becoming voting citizens (so they can vote for the party that helped make them legal!) so a path to citizenship has to be on the map too.
2. Bush failed to actually present a complete plan to Congress for them to work on.
3. Congress came up with their own plans on their own, since Bush had pointed them at the immigration issue. The Senate plan is similar to what I think Bush was looking for; the House went psycho-xenophobe on him though, and took their ludicrous "make them all felons" plan to the Michelle Malkins who were happy to spew that message out to the GOP base.
4. Now Bush is hosed, because he's lost the possibility of doing this "right" and locking in the Hispanic vote and at the same time he's pissed off the base. His speech last night I think was about trying to salvage something; putting 6,000 national guard troops on the border (actually, I think the plan is a total of 6,000 spread over 1 year, possibly on as short as 2 week rotations -- ie 6000/(52/2) = 230 national guardsfolk at a time on the border) isn't really going to do much. Sure there are some illegal immigrants who hike across the desert to come into the country. But of the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country, I doubt if even close to a majority of them did that. Almost all probably entered legally, and stayed beyond their visa's term, or else are working having entered on a non-work visa. No number of national guard troops on the border is going to do anything about those people. So Bush can show the base he's "doing something serious", but can at least not piss off the actual immigrants too much more than he already has, and maybe take another pass after the House changes hands (or at least shifts substantially) after November. Then he'll have a much much better chance of getting something like the Senate bill through, which he can then take credit for.

craig, with all due respect, as i live in texas, my inbox has been relatively flooded over the past 4 weeks with emails of traditional bush supporters who now want his head because of not taking a strong stand. from the emails, this spectacle appears to be driving people out of their minds.

Marginal Revolution is circulating an "open letter on immigration" hoping to attract signatures from economists and social scientists. It aims to present the academic consensus on the economic impact of immigration (slightly positive on balance, but largely neutral overall):

They have signators with both left and right wing positions and are hoping to attract more.

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