Opinion

Where the GOP's tough talk on immigration hits a wall

"Secure the border!" is completely at odds with reality — but you wouldn't know it from listening to Republican 2016 candidates

If there's one thing the Republicans running for president can agree on when it comes to immigration, it's that we need to "secure the border." After all, we just let people stream across our undefended frontiers, driving the population of undocumented immigrants ever higher! As it happens, that's completely at odds with reality — but you wouldn't know it from listening to the candidates.

Here's the truth.

First, spending on border security has exploded in the last decade and a half. In 2000, we spent just over a billion dollars on the Border Patrol; by last year the figure had more than tripled. In 2000 there were fewer than 10,000 Border Patrol agents; today there are more than twice as many. We spend billions more on other aspects of border security, and though it's true that in theory we could erect a fence across every inch of the border with Mexico, it's much harder to walk across it today than it used to be.

Second, if you're worried about the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, you should take heart that it's dropping. As The Washington Post reported on Wednesday:

[E]vidence is emerging that illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades. The nation’s population of illegal immigrants, which more than tripled, to 12.2 million, between 1990 and 2007, has dropped by about one million, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center. [The Washington Post]

That's still a lot of people, of course. But you probably won't hear much about those facts from Republicans who are trying to appeal to their party's base with tough talk about border security. And this week Rick Santorum upped the ante by coming out in his announcement speech not only for a crackdown on undocumented immigration, but placing limits on legal immigration as well.

At his speech announcing his presidential bid, Santorum said, "Over the last 20 years, we have brought into this country, legally and illegally, 35 million mostly unskilled workers. And the result, over that same period of time, workers' wages and family incomes have flatlined." Though the stagnation of wages and wealth is real, this is the first time I've heard someone put all the blame for it on immigration.

What Santorum may not realize is that if you cut back on the number of legal immigrants who are allowed into the U.S., it would only increase illegal immigration, as people who would otherwise want to immigrate legally decide that sneaking over the border is their only alternative. As a congressional staffer who works on immigration told me, "People go around our system because they cannot go through it." This relationship between the legal system and the number of undocumented immigrants is rarely mentioned in these discussions.

I'm not sure whether any candidates will follow Santorum to attack legal immigration, but it's certainly possible, because a lot of the strong feelings on the issue are about culture, not economics in particular or policy in general.

Even though the current wave of immigration from Mexico and other points south is well past its peak (net migration from Mexico fell to zero in 2012, meaning as many people moved from the U.S. to Mexico as the other way around), it remains a potent issue in Republican primaries because of the unease many Americans feel about having immigrants who look and sound different in their midst. That's a story as old as the nation itself, and whether they came here legally is not really the point when you're trying to win the vote of a retiree in Dubuque who doesn't like the fact that he hears Spanish being spoken by his fellow customers when he's in line at the supermarket.

So Santorum is certainly tapping into real resentments and fears when he lumps both kinds of immigration together. But all the Republican candidates ought to say a lot more about what they plan to do on the issue, particularly because they'd have a Congress ready to pass laws for a president of their party.

What does a "secure" border entail for them? How do they explain the drop in the number of undocumented immigrants? If they can secure the border to their satisfaction, what exactly do they want to do with the 11 million undocumented who are here, many of whom have been here for years or even decades? Do they have a plan to fix the technical problems that have plagued the E-Verify system, which allows employers to check the legal status of workers? What kinds of reforms do they envision for the legal immigration system? Would they support allowing more legal immigrants in every year?

Those are the kinds of questions they ought to be asked.

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