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Immigration Fairytales

New America Media, Commentary, Walter A. Ewing, Ph.D. Posted: Aug 04, 2008

Editors Note: A recent report that suggests the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has declined because of immigration law enforcement ignores some critical factors, says Walter A. Ewing, Senior Researcher at the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Immigration Matters regularly features the views of the nation's leading immigrant rights advocates.

It is commonsense that undocumented immigration is driven by economics. Most undocumented immigrants come from nations where economic opportunities are few and far between. Migrants would not leave behind families and homelands to embark upon potentially deadly journeys to the United States if there werent a good chance they could find jobs once they got here. And few immigrants would go back to countries that lack job opportunities unless there were no more jobs available in the United States. Not surprisingly, immigrants strive to build better lives in places where they can actually earn livelihoods.

Yet, a report released on July 30 by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) would have us believe that the decisions of undocumented immigrants about where to live are based more on the politics of immigration enforcement than the economics of their own survival. The report, Homeward Bound: Recent Immigration Enforcement and the Decline in the Illegal Alien Population, echoes the findings of other researchers that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has recently declined. However, the report reaches the dubious conclusion that a decrease in the size of the undocumented population between August 2007 and May 2008 is largely the result of new immigration-enforcement efforts, not the downturn of the U.S. economy. The report not only lacks hard data to back up this claim, but undermines itself with faulty logic and contradictory statements.

Most researchers agree that the pace of undocumented immigration depends primarily on the health of the U.S. economy. In a June 2008 report, Controlling Unauthorized Immigration from Mexico, Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, concludes that undocumented migration clearly responds to changing U.S. economic conditions, increasing when the economy is expanding and decreasing during economic downturns. But CIS tries to skirt this inconvenient truth by claiming that the number of likely illegal immigrants began to fall before their unemployment rate began to rise, suggesting that the decline was caused by enforcement rather than deterioration in the economy.

In reaching this conclusion, CIS uses the number of foreign-born Hispanics aged 18 to 40 with no more than a high-school diploma as a very poor proxy for the number of likely undocumented immigrants. Moreover, the economic timeline the report relies upon is flawed on two counts. First, the industries where many undocumented immigrants work began to experience economic problems before August 2007. The construction industry, for instance, started to shed jobs in the first quarter of 2007. Undocumented immigrants respond to changes in the industries where they work, not to changes in the overall unemployment rate.

Second, the CIS report relies on the Census Bureaus Current Population Survey (CPS), which asks respondents about their employment status. Undocumented immigrants who leave the United States will not be counted as unemployed in the CPS because they are not in the country. If recently arrived undocumented immigrants are the first to leave during an economic downturn, their departure is not going to register as an increase in the unemployment rate.

The CIS reports claim that immigration enforcement is suddenly succeeding is also undermined by the fact that undocumented immigrants themselves do not view immigration-enforcement measures as much of a deterrent. Wayne Cornelius research found that 91 percent of undocumented immigrants know that crossing the border is very dangerous, and nearly one-quarter know someone who has died while doing so. When asked what they fear most about crossing the border, nearly 43 percent list the harsh conditions of the desert, while less than one-quarter list the Border Patrol. Yet they cross anyway out of what they perceive to be economic necessity.

In keeping with its flawed data and faulty analysis, the CIS report offers no real solution to the problem of undocumented immigration. According to the report, if the recent decline in the undocumented population were sustained, it could cut the illegal population in half within just five years. Unfortunately, that would require sustained decline in the U.S. economy and the wasting of billions more dollars on deportation-only immigration-enforcement measures. The report also admonishes both presidential candidates for having allegedly saying that their strong desire to legalize those in the country illegally, might encourage more illegal immigration. Presumably, since even talking about comprehensive immigration reform could spark a rush of Mexicans across the border, politicians should ignore the issue.

Undocumented immigration will not be fixed by wishful thinking or a vow of silence on the part of presidential candidates. The deportation-only tactics CIS proposes cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year, divide families, destroy communities, and do not address the causes of undocumented immigration. The most practical and humane way to restore order to our broken immigration system is to create realistic and flexible avenues for legal immigration, while allowing undocumented immigrants already living here to come forward and apply for legal status.

Related Articles:

Experts Slam Report Claiming Undocumented Are Leaving America

Editorial Calls CIS Immigration Report Deeply Flawed

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