Steve Chapman

For opponents of illegal immigration, there is good news: We have found an effective method to reduce the number of new arrivals, while encouraging foreigners already here without permission to go home. There is also bad news: The method is a long, severe recession.

It worked for a while. The unauthorized immigrant population topped out at 12.2 million in 2007, which was also the year the economy began an 18-month contraction. The ranks of interlopers shrank by nearly a million over the next two years, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. But when the recession ended, so did the decline. It has "bottomed out, and the number may be rising again," says Pew.

Apprehensions at the border, a rough indicator of the pace of attempted entries, followed a similar course. They started falling even before the recession, but they are now ticking upward.

Conservatives are rarely surprised to find that massive government programs are oversold, ineffective or even counterproductive. But they somehow expected the border control binge to turn out differently.

It didn't. The flow of illegal immigration continues even though the government has spent billions building nearly 700 miles of fence between the United States and Mexico. We have twice as many enforcement officers on the southern border as we had 10 years ago and five times as many as in 1993.

So what do hardliners in Congress propose to do about this conspicuous failure of government? Throw good money after bad. In June, the Senate voted to allocate a staggering $46 billion to border security between 2014 and 2018.

It elected to double the size of the Border Patrol -- even though, as Fawn Johnson of The National Journal notes, "Many of the border agents we already have spend a lot of time staring at sand."

Anti-immigration groups think it's about time. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told The Washington Post, "The idea that the current level of enforcement is somehow adequate is not true." He's right that the current level of enforcement is not adequate. But the record suggests no level could ever be adequate.

Barack Obama has not been soft on the issue. Last year, his administration deported a record 410,000 undocumented foreigners. But the threat of being caught and expelled has not caused a mass rush by immigrants to "self-deport," as Mitt Romney hoped.

The implosion of the economy seems to be the chief reason for the small, temporary drop in the population of those living amid us without permission. But the overwhelming majority of those here illegally have stayed.

Steve Chapman

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

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