Immigration Policy: August 2011 Update
Three sets of numbers frame recent developments in immigration policy: numbers of the foreign-born in the latest U.S. census data; numbers on the impact of the recession on immigrant employment; and numbers on the size and trajectory of the undocumented population.
- The 2010 census count of Hispanics was 50.4 million in a total population of 308.7 million: 16% of all Americans, or one American in 6. The growth of the Hispanic population accounted for more than half of the nation’s growth between 2000 and 2010, with their numbers more than doubling in states such as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee. Asian-American growth rates also grew rapidly, as the white population broadly remained unchanged. And the key driver here was births rather than immigration. “Latinos now account for about one in four people under age 18.” The Mexican population in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 grew by 7.2 million because of births as against 4.2 million because of immigration. The resulting ethnic mix within the overall population changed dramatically. “From 2000 to 2010, the population of white children nationwide declined by 4.3 million, while the population of Hispanic and Asian children grew by 5.5 million.”
- Immigration stalled in 2008: “the immigrant population did not grow significantly between 2007 and 2008, the first year of the recession.” Immigration numbers grew again in 2009, but at a slower pace than in the pre-recession period. The growth in the U.S. foreign-born population was 1.85 million in 2005-6, 511,000 in 2006-7, negative 31,646 in 2007-8 and just 489,000 in 2008-9. Singer & Wilson found “a drop in the number of immigrants from Mexico, a slight increase in those with less than a high school education, an increase in those who are naturalized U.S. citizens and, not surprisingly, a rise in poverty among immigrants.” In fact, Hispanic America was doubly hit by the recession: “not only were many Hispanic homeowners left with negative equity, but the collapse of the construction industry, which had been a primary draw for immigrants beforehand, eliminated the very means by which they could continue making mortgage payments.”
- The unauthorized immigrant population stabilized in 2010, at an estimated 11.2 million people. This is down from its 2008 peak of an estimated 12 million. The 2010 population made up 3.7% of the total population, and 5.2% of the workforce. The number of undocumented workers from Mexico was estimated by Passel and Cohn as down from 7 million to 6.5 million, and as such still 58% of the undocumented population in total. That total continued in grow in certain states (Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas are mentioned in the Pew Report), as is the longer term trend: namely that “the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United states has tripled since 1990…and grown by a third since 2000.” These lesser flows of undocumented workers across the southern border reflected diminished demand in the United States for labor, increased border surveillance and the rising fees charged by those steering illegal immigrants across the border. During a visit to El Paso in February 2011, Homeland Security Secretary (and former Arizona Governor) Janet Napolitano “said 20,700 agents, twice as many as in 2004, are guarding the U.S. border. Apprehensions of illegal crossers have declined 36% in the past two years, an indication that fewer people have been attempting to sneak in to the U.S. from Mexico.”
This more stable situation in relation to the flow of illegal immigration might have been expected to create an easier climate for bipartisan agreement on comprehensive immigration reform; but it did not. The capture of the House of Representatives by the Republican Party in the 2010 mid-term elections moved into positions of control in key House committees Republican lawmakers totally opposed to any legal route to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. Even attempts by leading Democratic lawmakers to pass a modest DREAM Act during the interregnum between the old Congress and the new one stalled in the Senate, so that 2011 began, as 2010 had done, with the Administration able to deliver only on two of the three legs of its declared policy: securing the border and deporting immigrants caught without papers, but not in the context of successful comprehensive immigration reform. The number of deportations, which in 2009 had reached the record level of 389,834, was actually exceeded in 2010: the new number was 392,862. As of May 23, 2011, the U.S. government had deported 1,026,517 immigrants since the beginning of the fiscal year 2009.
Little wonder then that the Administration came under increasing pressure through 2011 from Latinos, Democratic lawmakers and immigrant advocacy groups to curb deportations. If the third leg of the stool could not be delivered, why persist so heavily with the second, when the electoral price of doing so would likely be so high. The Pew Research Center’s electoral data suggested that maybe 15 million Latinos sat out the 2010 elections to the Administration’s cost, and more still might sit out the next general election, at a greater cost still. In May 2011, the President followed Janet Napolitano to El Paso and made his own strong plea for comprehensive immigration reform, beginning with the passing of the Dream Act. But to no avail: so by August 2011 the Administration’s implementation of existing immigration law began to change, with the announcement that ICE would immediately suspend deportation proceedings against the many illegal immigrants who posed no threat to national security or public safety. According to the announcement, all 300,000 cases currently being processed were to be reviewed on a one-by-one basis in order to focus on high-priority cases where a threat was posed, leaving low-priority cases to be removed from proceedings and the individuals concerned able to apply for work permits. Lamar Smith, Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee immediately and predictably denounced this granting of what he termed “backdoor amnesty to illegal immigrants. The administration,” he said, “should enforce immigration laws, not look for ways to ignore them.”
Not everyone in the Republican Party leadership is as adamantly opposed to comprehensive immigration reform as is Lamar Smith, but at the grass roots level, his is definitely the preferred position. Indeed as federal politics gridlocked in 2011, Republican leadership at the state level spread the Arizona model wider and wider across the American South. SB1070 copycat legislation was passed in Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia: all equally vulnerable, as is Arizona’s, to challenge in the courts as usurping the federal government’s prerogative to regulate immigration. Those challenges are now underway, but one thing at least is clear. If Lamar Smith remains the dominant Republican voice on issues of repatriation through 2012, maybe some/all of the missing 15 million Latino votes may yet produce a more liberal and Democratically-controlled Congress willing to listen to them. For without such a Congress, federal immigration reform of a progressive kind is visibly stalled.
 Jeffrey Passel, How Many Hispanics? Pew Hispanic Center, March 15, 2011: available at http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=139
 Miriam Jordan, “Births Fuel Hispanic Growth,” The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2011: available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304521304576446232406979972.html
 Sudeep Reddy, “Latinos Fuel Growth in Decade,” The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2011: available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704604704576220603247344790.html
 William Frey, America’s Diverse Future, Brookings, 2011: available at http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2011/0406_census_diversity_frey.aspx
 Audrey Singer & Jill H. Wilson, The Impact of the Great Recession on Metropolitan Immigration Trends, Brookings 2011: available at http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2010/1216_immigration_singer_wilson.aspx
 For fuller details, see Immigration: The Story in 2009: at http://www.davidcoates.net/2010/01/18/immigration-the-story-in-2009/
 Douglas S. Massey, “Isolated, Vulnerable and Broke,” The New York Times, August 4, 2011: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/05/opinion/hispanic-families-isolated-and-broke.html
 Jeffrey Passel & D’Vera Cohn, Unauthorized Immigrant Population: National and State Trends 2010, Pew Hispanic Center, February 2011: available at http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=133
 Ibid, p. 2
 Miriam Jordan, ‘Illegal-Immigrant Numbers Steady,’ The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2011: available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704124504576118050426418380.html
 An Act to enable children brought here illegally (and therefore innocent, because young, of any deliberate intent to break the law) to attend college/enlist in the military en route to citizenship
 For details on the Administration’s “three legged stool” approach to immigration reform, see: http://www.davidcoates.net/2010/08/25/immigration-and-the-problem-of-the-two-legged-stool/
 Andrew Becker, “Unusual methods helped ICE break deportation record, e-mails and interviews show,” The Washington Post, December 6, 2010: available at http://centerforinvestigativereporting.org/articles/unusualmethodshelpedicebreakdeportationrecord
 Quoted in The New York Times, August 18, 2011
 On this, see Harold Meyerson, “Will the GOP embrace immigration reform or continue to ostracize key voters?” The Washington Post, February 16, 2011: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/14/AR2011021404499.html
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.