Before leaving for his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Barack Obama said the next big item on his legislative agenda -- well, after health care and cap-and-trade and maybe labor's bill to effectively abolish secret ballots in union elections -- was immigration reform. What he has in mind, apparently, is something like the comprehensive immigration bills that foundered in the House in 2006 and in the Senate in 2007. These featured guest-worker and enforcement provisions, as well as a path to legalization.
The prospects for such legislation still seem iffy. Immigration bills have typically needed bipartisan support to pass, and the Republicans who took the lead on the Senate bills in 2006 and 2007 aren't interested in doing so again. And some Democratic congressional leaders are wary of a bill that many members' constituents oppose.
But there's another reason why Congress and the administration would be unwise to revive the 2006-07 legislation. The facts on the ground have changed. The surge of illegal immigrants into the United States, which seemed to be unrelenting for most of the last two decades, seems to be over, at least temporarily, and there's a chance it may never resume.
The facts are in some dispute, as is inevitably the case, since available statistics are subject to error. The Pew Hispanic Center reported in July that the flow of immigrants from Mexico -- by far the leading source of illegals -- has declined sharply since mid-decade and that from spring 2008 to spring 2009 only 175,000 Mexicans entered the United States, only about one-quarter as many in 2004-05. The number of Mexican natives in the U.S. has declined slightly this year. But, Pew concludes, there is no evidence of an increase in the total returning to Mexico.
The Center for Immigration Studies had a different interpretation in its July report. It tried to distinguish legal and illegal immigrants, and found no decline in legal immigrants. But it estimated that the number of illegals in the U.S. dropped from 12.5 million in summer 2007 to 10.8 million in spring 2008 -- a decline of 14 percent. It found that the illegal population declined after July 2007, when the immigration bill died in the Senate, and then fell off more sharply with the financial crisis in fall 2008. It estimated that 1.2 million illegals returned to Mexico between 2006 and 2009, more than twice as many as in the 2002-05 period.
From this evidence, I draw two conclusions. First, stricter enforcement -- the border fence, more Border Patrol agents, more stringent employer verification, and state and local laws -- has reduced the number of illegal immigrants. Second, the recession has reduced the number of both legal and illegal immigrants.
CIS explicitly and Pew implicitly conclude that immigration will rise again once the economy revives. I'm not so sure. At least some of the stricter enforcement measures will continue. And the reservoir of potential immigrants may be drying up. Birth rates declined significantly in Mexico and Latin America circa 1990. And as immigration scholars Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson write, emigration rates from Mexico and Latin America -- the percentage of the population leaving those countries -- peaked way back in 1985-94.
Moreover, people immigrate not only to make money but to achieve dreams. And one of those dreams has been shattered for many Latino immigrants. Most housing foreclosures have occurred in four states -- California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida -- and about one-third of those who have lost their homes are Hispanic. Immigration is stimulated by the reports of success that immigrants send back home. It may be discouraged by reports of failure.
The apparent sharp decline in immigration and the possible or likely return of masses of illegals to their countries of origin won't necessarily change the stands of supporters and opponents of comprehensive immigration reform. But they should prompt all of us to rethink our positions. As one who has tended to support comprehensive bills, I think we might, at a time when high unemployment means we have less need for unskilled workers, have to consider moving away from family reunification and toward high skill levels in our criteria for legal immigration, as Canada and Australia already do.
That's not likely to be the approach taken by the Obama administration or congressional Democrats. Obama may be eager for action, but we all may be better off taking time to understand the emerging facts that may be redefining the problem before trying to come up with a solution.