President Bush has reopened a badly needed discussion about comprehensive immigration reform. Even with the few issues he talked about, however, facts are commonly brushed aside in favor of linguistic confusion.
Critics of the president's proposals would surely have been verbally disarmed if the president had emphasized the need to register illegal aliens, for purposes of security and tax collection, rather than labeling that registration process as a "temporary worker" program. Many of those critics seem to have trouble with the English language, confusing the word "temporary" with permanent. Yet in 2003 alone, "roughly 3 million people were admitted as temporary residents," according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). That included 593,000 temporary workers and an even larger number of temporary students. Yet nobody has yet claimed all those temporary guests were granted "amnesty."
The CBO estimates that "181 million people were (legally) admitted to the United States as non-immigrants in 2003," mostly as tourists -- a figure nearly as large as the entire U.S. adult population. "Closing the borders" is a soundbite, not a serious suggestion.
The president and his critics discuss only the illegal portion of immigration, and only that portion of illegal immigrants who crossed the Mexican border by land. But illegal immigrants accounted for only 28 percent of the total immigrant population in 2003, according to the Urban Institute. And the bureaucratic way we ration immigration quotas, with arbitrary priorities and multi-year waiting lists, clearly increases the incentive to evade the system.
The Mexican border accounts for only about half of illegal immigration, or one-sixth of total immigration. Those who focus too exclusively on the Mexican border often cite the Pew Hispanic Center's estimate of 11 million illegal immigrants because it is larger than any official count. Yet that same study says only 6 million of those 11 million came from Mexico -- a share that remained "virtually unchanged for the past decade."
Roughly half of illegal immigrants, including many Mexicans, arrived here perfectly legally, often by air or sea. But they overstayed their visas. If the institutional incentives to reside in the United States illegally remain unchanged, then tightening the Mexican border would be like putting up a "detour" sign -- diverting a larger share of illegal immigration toward arrival by air, sea or the Canadian border.