Is Congress, behind on Barack Obama's deadlines on health care and cap-and-trade legislation, and flummoxed by the failure of the stimulus package to hold unemployment below 10.2 percent, prepared to address the immigration issue next year?
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says it better be. The current situation, she told the Center for American Progress on Nov. 13, "is simply unacceptable." We need a "three-legged stool," with provisions to strengthen enforcement, legalize some illegal immigrants and improve "legal flows for families and workers."
This sounds a lot like the comprehensive legislation, backed by the Bush administration, that never came to a vote in the Republican House in 2006 and was rejected by the Democratic Senate in 2007. But, as Napolitano correctly noted, the facts on the ground have changed in the last two years.
Ironically, the push for legalization in 2006-07 resulted instead in stronger enforcement measures. Some 600 miles of border fence have been built, the Border Patrol has been vastly expanded, and the e-Verify system for determining whether job applicants are legally in the country has shown its worth.
It's probably not a coincidence that Arizona, where e-Verify is most widely used and where Napolitano used to be governor, had a statistically significant drop in its foreign-born population percentage in 2007-08. The Obama administration may be skinning back on some enforcement procedures. But states and localities are moving forward, and the momentum seems to be toward stricter enforcement of existing law.
Even more important, the flow of immigrants into the United States is slowing dramatically and may be reversing. The Pew Hispanic Center notes that the number of immigrants from Mexico in 2008-09 is down three-quarters from four years before. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the number of illegals in the U.S. declined by 1.7 million, or 14 percent, in 2007-08. Government figures show that border apprehensions, a statistic that is often taken as a proxy for illegal crossings, fell 23 percent in 2008-09 from the previous year and was only one-third the number in the peak period of 2000-01.
Those numbers obviously reflect a response to deep recession as well as the effects of tougher enforcement. They suggest a much smaller immigration flow and significant reverse migration back to countries of origin in the years ahead.