Steve Chapman

What's it gotten us? The number of undocumented foreigners living here rose steadily until 2008, when the busted economy made America a less alluring destination. It's not fair to say that the illegal population grew in spite of our sternest efforts to reduce it. It's more accurate to say it happened (SET ITAL) because (END ITAL) of those efforts.

In the old days, most people who came illegally didn't stay for long. They showed up, worked for a while and returned home. But when border crossings became more difficult, perilous and expensive, many of them chose to remain in this country permanently rather than leave and risk not being able to get back.

"It was thus a sharp decline in the outflow of undocumented migrants, not an increase in the inflow of undocumented migrants, that was responsible for the acceleration of undocumented population growth during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this decline in return migration was to a great extent a product of U.S. enforcement efforts," wrote Princeton scholars Douglas Massey and Karen Pren in a recent issue of Population and Development Review.

Why we should be reluctant to accept these striving newcomers, who almost invariably work hard and stay out of trouble, is a puzzle. The punitive approach is particularly unfair in the case of those who were brought here as children and have become Americans in all the customary ways, through no fault of their own.

But maybe all the talk about tougher enforcement is just a way for our leaders to cover their shift to an overdue accommodation of the illegal immigrants in our midst.

The choice is not between letting them stay and making them leave: We have already proved that we can't force them out. The choice is between adjusting the law to fit the stubborn facts of life and persisting in measures to make their lives miserable. The latter is a proven loser, in more ways than one.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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