Immigration hawks have been on a winning streak lately. An unprecedented surge of public outrage at the prospect of amnesty for illegal immigrants led to the defeat in June of the Senate immigration bill and the probable end of President Bush's dream for comprehensive immigration reform. And that was merely the latest in a series of victories for supporters of tighter controls, including the Real ID Act of 2005, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, proliferating enforcement efforts at the state and local levels and a new package of modest but meaningful enforcement measures announced last month by the Department of Homeland Security.
What of the results? Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told The Times that "there will be some unhappy consequences for the economy out of doing this." While the enforcement climate is still too new to show results in government data one way or the other, Chertoff's prediction doesn't appear to be playing out. On the contrary, there is extensive anecdotal evidence that enforcement is actually having its desired effects: More illegal aliens are going home, leading to improved conditions for American workers and communities.
The first consequence of stepped-up enforcement is attrition of the illegal population -- a steady decrease in the total number of illegal aliens as more people give up and go home. Attrition is the real alternative to amnesty, and we're seeing it work.
The Arizona Republic ran a story last month explaining how migrants were leaving the state in anticipation of tough new immigration rules. Public radio station WBUR in Boston reported that "in the midst of the debate about immigrants coming to America, something unusual is happening in Massachusetts: Brazilian immigrants are quietly packing up and leaving." And the Chicago Tribune, reporting on the Pennsylvania town at the forefront of the resistance to illegal immigration, has written that "over the summer, when Hazleton officials created the nation's first ordinance aimed at driving away undocumented residents, thousands of people apparently packed up and left."
Far from having "unhappy consequences," these developments are improving the economic bargaining power of less-skilled American workers. The Rocky Mountain News reported that in Greeley, Colo., "the line of applicants hoping to fill jobs vacated by undocumented workers taken away by immigration agents at the Swift & Co. meat-processing plant . . . was out the door." New England Cable News reported that only after a raid on a plant making leather goods for the military in New Bedford, Mass., were Americans and legal immigrants able to get hired. As one new employee said of the raid: "In a way, you know, it's sad, and then in a way it's good because at least it gives people that were not employed for so many years . . . a break to be able to work and support their families."
When illegal aliens were removed from a Crider Poultry plant in Stillmore, Ga., the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Wall Street Journal documented the benefits to local workers. The plant raised wages significantly, began offering free shuttles from nearby towns and provided free rooms in a company-owned dormitory. For the first time, Crider sought applicants from the state unemployment office and began hiring probationers and men from a local homeless mission. And, as the Journal noted, "for the first time since significant numbers of Latinos began arriving in Stillmore in the late 1990s, the plant's processing lines were made up predominantly of African Americans."
Better enforcement doesn't result only in economic improvements. While there is an ongoing scholarly debate about the overall crime rates of immigrants versus the native-born, there's no doubt that tougher enforcement has had a notable effect on gang activity. In an upcoming study, my Center for Immigration Studies reports that using immigration law against gangs has helped bring about a 39% drop in gang activity in the Washington suburb of Fairfax County, and Dallas police report a 20% drop in the murder rate as a result of the same initiative.
Of course, the consequence of uncontrolled immigration that most ordinary Americans see is what political scientist Peter Skerry calls "social disorder." Hazleton offers a good example: While cleaning graffiti from her building, a local locksmith told the Tribune that "about the same time the ordinance passed, the whole tone of the street changed. Virtually overnight, it was a totally different place."
As recent enforcement victories are sustained and expanded, we can begin to document the benefits in other areas: less stress on hospital emergency rooms, less-crowded classrooms, slower growth in government social spending. But the results we've seen so far are clear: We can get illegal aliens to return home, and doing so will improve conditions in American communities. Why didn't we start doing this a long time ago?
Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration.