Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Crisis

It was 38 years ago today that Jim McKay, the award-winning ABC sportscaster, had the solemn duty of informing the world of the awful outcome to the hostage crisis that had stolen the world's attention from the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich.  In his unscripted remarks, McKay said, "When I was a kid my father used to say 'Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.'"

Of course, as the events of that week proved, such is not always the case.  But proverbs being proverbs, it does hold true most of the time that our worst fears are seldom realized.

So I suppose that, by now, we should know better than to hyperventilate over any one particular issue to reach status as the next Great American Crisis.  A quick look in the rear-view mirror of the recent past will reveal frantic stories about Y2K, Swine Flu and all sorts of horrors that never materialized.  More often than not, these things find their own level and we manage to work stuff out.

For all of us who have embraced the debate over U.S. immigration policy with gusto -- and that would include me, as you can see here -- a new report came to light last week that suggests we may have been wearing ourselves out over a crisis that is shrinking before our very eyes.

According to a new study released last Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group, the influx of illegal immigrants plunged to an estimated 300,000 annually between March 2007 and 2009, down dramatically from 850,000 a year between March 2000 and March 2005.  This decline explains a sudden and unexpected contraction in the overall size of the undocumented population to 11 million people in March 2009 from a peak of 12 million two years earlier, according to the Pew analysis.

Specifically, the Pew study found that the flow of Mexicans, who represent 60% of all illegal immigrants in the U.S., plummeted to 150,000 annually during the 2007-2009 period, compared with the annual average of 500,000 during the first half of the decade.  The demographers who conducted the study found that inflows of illegal immigrants into the U.S. have been on a steady downward trend now for the last four years.

For all of our internal huffing and puffing about policy and border security, it appears that the dynamics of the marketplace have been the primary cause of this sudden decline in illegal immigration.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the mortgage crisis and overall economic slump have slashed jobs in construction, tourism and other sectors that are the primary job sectors pursued by immigrants from Latin America.

Apparently, illegal immigrants already in the U.S. are struggling, and word of their economic hardship is dissuading those back home from flocking to the U.S.  "People don't want to come now; they know the economy is bad," said Braulio Gonzalez from Guatemala, a day laborer interviewed by The Journal.

By the way, it's not just the Pew study that has emerged out of the blue and has published data in a vacuum on this development.  Newsweek Magazine reported this weekend that the Pew study is actually the third recent academic study to document the fact that the illegal immigration crisis appears to be waning even as the political panic attacks appear to be rising.

Meanwhile, in spite of what one hears from right-wing cable news and reads in conservative blogs, the Obama Administration has been slowly remaking the enforcement of federal immigration laws.  It turns out that, over the past year or so, federal officials have been deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants and auditing hundreds of businesses that hire undocumented workers.  In fact, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since 2008, President Bush's final year in office.

The emergence of this new data was quite a surprise to me, especially as a California resident who is acutely aware of the serious strain that illegal immigration places on our already stressed infrastructure, not to mention the frightening escalation of violence involving Mexican drug cartels that operate just miles from the U.S. border.  These two principal concerns -- the strain on public resources created by non-citizens and the civil war that has broken out between Mexican law enforcement and Mexican drug gangs just across the U.S. border -- are no less ominous to me now than they were before.  Indeed, there is every reason to believe that economic recovery in the U.S. may well open up the illegal immigration pipeline to pre-2007 levels, and that the spiraling warfare in the Mexican drug trade may spill across the border before too long.

But it's important that all political discourse be shaped by the facts -- and based on the new facts available to us, it appears that a crummy U.S. job market may be accomplishing what no political debate was able to produce in the last several election cycles: a way to stem the tide of illegal immigration.

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