Tougher enforcement, better results?

Today, Krikorian and Jiménez debate the effects and future of tougher immigration enforcement. Later in the week, they'll discuss immigration as an issue in the presidential primaries, Real ID and more.

All we are saying is give enforcement a chanceBy Mark Krikorian
Illegal aliens are people too.

And precisely because they are people like any others, they respond to incentives just like anyone else. What we've seen over the past year or so is that when government changes the incentives that illegal immigrants face, they change their behavior.

In other words, immigration enforcement is working.

By the end of this year, about half the additional border fencing mandated by Congress should be complete. Deportations and detention beds are up significantly. The Department of Homeland Security is pushing ahead with efforts to expose illegal workers who provided fake or stolen Social Security numbers to their employers. Sometime this year, all federal contractors will be required to check the legal status of new hires using the online E-Verify program. And virtually every state legislature in the nation is considering tough new immigration control measures, following in the footsteps of Georgia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado.

The results are starting to come in. Fewer people are sneaking across the Mexican border. Some illegal immigrants are deporting themselves, while others are moving to less-inhospitable states, ensuring crackdowns there as well. Workplace enforcement is forcing employers to reach out to unemployed and underemployed American workers, as well as to turn to labor-saving technologies.

Are immigration restrictionists happy? You bet. But regaining control of immigration is a process, not an event. Our approach cannot be to focus intensively on enforcement for a few months or a year and then declare the borders secure and return to business as usual. This is has happened in the past — for instance, after the 1986 immigration law making it illegal for the first time to employ an illegal alien, crossings from Mexico fell until it became clear we didn't mean it, at which point they started rising again. This would appear to be what Sen. John McCain has in mind when he has spoken of a one- or two-year period of enforcement before implementing his amnesty.

Instead, the goal must be to change the climate surrounding the issue, to "define deviancy up," to adapt former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's phrase. Specifically, this would mean things like making legal status a labor standard that is internalized by employers and ensuring that visitors from abroad have good reason to fear that if they overstay their visas, they'll be identified.

Reducing the illegal population by cutting the inflow and increasing the outflow is not a pipe dream; we've seen self-deportation work on small scales before. For instance, after 9/11, Pakistani illegal aliens, the largest group from the Islamic world, got the message that circumstances for them had changed, and for every one detained by immigration authorities, 10 self-deported.

My own institution has modeled that consistent enforcement with a modest increase in resources over existing plans could reduce the illegal population by half in five years. In the event, maybe the reduction will be only 30%, or maybe 70%. But we can be quite sure that such a strategy of "attrition through enforcement" will work in significantly reducing the illegal population — but only if we keep it up.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and author of the forthcoming book, "The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal" (Sentinel).

The great pull of economic forcesBy Tomás R. Jiménez
Dear Mark,

Good of you to acknowledge the humanity of undocumented immigrants. It's too bad you make unrealistic assumptions about the forces that shape their behavior.

You are right to note that efforts employed by the federal government and states have made life more difficult for undocumented immigrants. But the pull of jobs and the demand for labor are really what drive recent trends.

Let's start at the border. As you point out, we have to think about these things as processes, not events. We should thus be careful about the conclusions we draw from current "events." The history of very complicated processes tells a clear story. Beginning in the early 1990s, we fortified urban border crossings with officers, walls, lights and the latest detection technology. There was an initial drop in clandestine crossings, but it didn't last long. Migrants found ways to evade detection, usually by heading for the hills or the dessert, where thousands have tragically died in the unforgiving heat and cold.

Because the journey got tougher and more dangerous, human smugglers became indispensable for migrants, making smuggling big business. From 1982 to 1992, before stepped-up enforcement, migrants could expect to pay an average of $924 (in real dollars).Today, they are charging between $2,500 and $3,000. As a result, undocumented migrants are staying on the northern side of the border because going back and forth is too dangerous and costly. In short, border fortification keeps migrants in, not out. This unintended consequence reduces the number of apprehensions being made at the border, because fewer return trips to Mexico means fewer migrants at risk of being detained when they return to the U.S.

Furthermore, the data suggest that the supposed disincentives to migrate are not as effective as you imply. Migrants are fully aware of stepped-up enforcement, but it is not factoring heavily into their decisions to migrate. According to 2007 data collected by the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at UC San Diego, 91% of veteran and first-time migrants know about approved new fencing, and 73% are aware of National Guard deployment on the border. Yet only 29% cite the U.S. Border Patrol, fences or the National Guard as their single greatest concern about crossing. Fully 69% cite natural hazards, Mexican bandits or Mexican police as their primary concern. Increased border security certainly makes it difficult but not impossible to cross; 92% who tried to cross eventually made it, even if it took multiple attempts. So, even if we build it, they will still come as long as they can increase their wages eightfold by moving to the United States.

I'm not sure you have fully thought through other very plausible explanations that might account for recent migration and settlement patterns. Incentives do indeed shape behavior, but it's really the availability of jobs that is the biggest incentive. The economy is slowing, and jobs in sectors that rely on undocumented labor are drying up. Nearly one in five undocumented migrants in the labor force work in construction and mining. The construction industry has shed 284,000 jobs since September 2006. As Americans' wallets shrink, so too will jobs in the service sector, in which 31% of undocumented migrants work. A decline in the availability of work may explain much of the recent decline in border apprehensions.

"Attrition through enforcement" is made much more complicated by that fact that there are families involved. About 30% of all unauthorized families (1.96 million) contain children who are U.S. citizens. Should we count on these people to "self-deport" themselves and their U.S.-citizen children? It's not likely to happen.

My point is not that undocumented immigration is good or that migrants' tenacity and cleverness render anything we do ineffective. My point is that we are fighting against powerful economic forces that we helped create. We have a free trade agreement with Mexico (NAFTA), which allows for the free movement of capital and goods. Yet we continue with a schizophrenic policy that fights the movement of labor that tends to follow capital and goods. It would make more sense to move our resources and energy from trying to restrict immigration to trying to manage it so that we maximize the benefits to all.

Take care,

Tomás R. Jiménez is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Main Page  |  Next day's Dust-Up >>
Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4  |  Day 5

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times