Our Immigration Problem’s Not Going Away

The Pew Hispanic Center’s recent report on the decline of unauthorized immigration has elicited a flood of responses. The report’s finding that “the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped” has led to some victory laps, such as that by Timothy Noah in his recent New Republic article, “What Crisis? Our Non-Existent Immigration Problem.” Such triumphalist “problem solved” proclamations are wrongheaded. They ignore the 11 million undocumented immigrants still here, the thousands of deaths along our border, the constant Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, and the millions who wait in vain for green cards.

Even if the situation isn’t just a temporary reflection of a down economy, the fact that net migration has fallen to zero doesn’t mean that migrants aren’t coming. From 2005 to 2010, almost 1.4 million came from Mexico to the United States to work. This traffic demonstrates the original size of the phenomenon. Even after the drop, there were almost 300,000 border apprehensions in 2011—hardly a “non-existent problem.” Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up—between 3,500 and 5,200 people have died thanks to the 1994 border control plan, which predicted that migrants would be “forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing.”

For undocumented immigrants already here, problems have escalated. Deportations have increased each of the last three years, with 1.18 million people overall rounded up and expelled from the country—the highest number of deportations ever. While many of those deported are criminals, many others are deported for misdemeanors, minor immigration offenses, or simply lacking documents. It’s hard to describe hundreds of thousands of people being arrested, put in detention centers, and exiled to other countries as a “nonexistent” issue.

While undocumented migrants have suffered the most under this administration, immigration-related threats to businesses have also escalated dramatically in the last three years. ICE has increased its number of workplace audits by a factor of at least six, with more than 3,000 in the works this year. The Obama administration has already imposed nearly $100 million in fines, more than all the Bush years combined. Moreover, state-level enforcement efforts have imposed even harsher penalties like Arizona’s business “death penalty,” which closes businesses permanently for a second immigration offense.

Many times these businesses are fined just for incorrect paper work. “I didn’t dot my I’s and cross my T’s,’” Romeo D’Agostino, who was fined tens of thousands of dollars, told The Boston Globe. “I always relate it to tax law,” labor law consultant Barlow Curran recently told The Tampa Tribune. “Federal tax law is so complicated that if the IRS audits you, regardless of how careful you’ve been, they’ll probably find something. The same thing is true of farm labor law.”

But all the border apprehensions, deportations, and fines are symptoms of the real immigration crisis—legal restrictions to entry that make it impossible for foreign workers and U.S. employers to compete in the international labor market. During boom times, unauthorized immigration is a problem not because more immigrants want to come to the U.S., but because there is no legal way for so many of them to do so. This leaves many American businesses with little legal access to the workers they need. Whenever the economy picks up steam again, the demand for immigrant labor will rise.

Protectionist policies, including immigration restrictions, inflate U.S. prices, drive away business and capital, and limit entrepreneurs’ and innovators’ access to what is still one of the freest, most dynamic economies in the world. If all countries abandoned trade barriers, worldwide economic growth would greatly increase: between $13 trillion and $39 trillion in just 25 years. While this loss of economic growth may be an unseen problem, it is by no means a “nonexistent” one.

In a way, however, Noah is right. Immigration is not a problem—the only problem is the law.