Immigration strategists on the right tend to take the proverbial “enforcement-first” view of immigration. On this view, the main objective is to stop the illegal flow of immigrants who enter the U.S. through the porous southern border shared with Mexico. The way to accomplish this objective is by securing the border, deporting undocumented immigrants by rigorous enforcement of current immigration law, and using some form of national employment verification system to quell the employment opportunities that serve as the incentive for illegal migration. Only after we have accomplished the goal of halting the illegal influx of immigrants should we begin talking about “comprehensive” immigration reform, including the problem of what to do about the roughly 11 million immigrants who are here illegally and who will not be deported en masse. Indeed, providing them with a path to citizenship now would risk incentivizing migration and adding to the mass influx of immigrants.
In response the Democrats have sought to appear “tough” on immigration enforcement in order to woo Republican support for comprehensive reform. Obama touts the fact that the border has never been more secure than under his watch, and that his Secure Communities program is part of an effort to enforce our national immigration laws. This has led to the widespread perception that Obama has intended for deportations to increase under his watch, an extremely sore spot for Latinos, which has dampened their enthusiasm for him. The costs of appearing tough are high in relation to this demographic, even if increased deportations are due more to the gradual increase of ICE’s capacities than to any initiative on the part of the administration. (See http://alllatinonews.com/003_news_opinion.html)
A recent report (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/07/06/world/americas/immigration…) by the New York Times has the potential to shift the terms of the immigration debate, rendering the enforcement-first position retrograde. Damien Cave’s study has shown that Mexican migration has “sputtered to a trickle.” The days when mass influxes of immigrants came to the U.S. illegally for employment opportunities are over. This is a dynamic that had been in play for two generations, and which shaped the recent terms of the immigration debate.
Cave’s study attributes decreased migration to changes in Mexico, and primarily to the increased opportunities for education and better pay for Mexicans. (At one point, a Mexican migrant could have earned ten times more in income in the U.S. than in Mexico.) Others will want to emphasize the policies adopted in the U.S., such as increased border security and the slew of severe state initiatives to enforce national immigration laws.
The question of which of these causes is primarily responsible for the decreased migration is important, but all answers assume the fact that there is no longer a mass influx of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally. We no longer need the kind of border security that is capable of putting a halt to mass migration, because there no longer is mass migration, which is not to say that we need no border security.
Given that there is no longer a mass influx of immigrants crossing our border illegally, Democrats no longer need to appease the enforcement-first crowd through tough immigration rhetoric. It is the circumstances themselves which should sway Republican support at this point. Rather than agreeing that we need to focus now on security, Democrats ought to point to the fact that we are at a place where our border is secure enough, and that it is time to move on to comprehensive immigration reform. If Republicans don’t agree that anything should be done comprehensively even now when the preponderance of evidence shows that we no longer have a problem of mass migration, they will either show themselves to be disingenuous or they will have to adopt something other than the enforcement-first stance, which would constitute a serious realignment within the immigration debate.
If the decrease is due to border security and tough enforcement of immigration laws here, then the tactics of the enforcement-first crowd have been successful. Kudos to them. The border is now secure enough. Now it is time for them to start talking about how we are to fix our immigration laws comprehensively, or explain why we shouldn’t now that we have had enough enforcement.