Steve Chapman

These failures illuminate the limits of enforcement and the importance of accepting reality. Granting most unauthorized immigrants an avenue to live here legally and eventually become citizens would foster assimilation and make it harder for employers to pay them lower wages than citizens. It would allow young people who did nothing wrong -- because they were brought here as kids -- to escape a dead end.

The state numbers in the Pew report suggest that the reason people come here, through hell and high water, is the lure of jobs -- not, as commonly assumed, the appeal of free government benefits.

"Texas is the only state throughout the Great Recession that has seen an increase in illegal immigration," points out policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute. What Texas offers is a stingy welfare system and a lot of companies eager to hire. Illinois and California, which essentially provide the opposite, saw their numbers drop.

Immigration reform would also have the unexpected effect of inducing some of those here illegally to depart. Before the crackdown, many undocumented foreigners felt free to go home for months or years, if not permanently. But as the cost and risk of sneaking in mushroomed, many of them decided that leaving is not an option.

A 2011 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "rather than acting as a deterrent, increased enforcement appears to have other effects on migrant behavior: it increases the duration of trips and reduces the likelihood of return migration." This effect is a big reason the undocumented population is so much bigger than it used to be.

The heavy enforcement approach, in short, has been a big federal undertaking stymied by individual choice and market forces, resulting in a huge waste of money. Who could have ever seen that coming?

Steve Chapman

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

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