If anyone needed proof that there is no simple "solution" to our illegal immigration "problem," they got it last week when the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued its new estimate of foreigners living illegally in this country.
Analyzing census data and their own records, INS officials figure there are more than 5 million illegal immigrants in the United States. California has the most--2 million, or 40% of the total. And Mexico remains the major sending country, accounting for 54.1%.
The good news is that 5 million is nowhere near the scariest estimates of the illegal population--12 million to 20 million--claimed by the most ardent immigration restrictionists.
The bad news is that 5 million is still almost an all-time high. It is approaching the 6 million illegal immigrants that the INS figured were in this country in 1987, a year after Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave 3 million illegal immigrants a one-time opportunity to legalize their status.
This so-called amnesty was a typically American gesture of generosity by Congress and two presidents--Jimmy Carter, who first proposed it, and Ronald Reagan, who signed it into law. It was a well-intentioned attempt to deal with the fact that many illegal immigrants had been here long enough to put down roots.
Unfortunately, like most grand legislative designs, IRCA also had unintended consequences, especially with regard to Mexican citizens. It prompted many illegal workers who were used to migrating between homes in Mexico and seasonal jobs in this country to settle down here as immigrants. Many sent for their families, putting added stress on schools, public health care and other services. IRCA did not provide nearly enough federal money to make up for the added costs to heavily impacted states like California.
Worse, IRCA didn't stop illegal immigration. The 1986 law included sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants, but that provision has not been enforced very effectively. So with the INS' estimate of the illegal population creeping up once again, it looks like all IRCA did was slow things down for a while.
But there is no comfort here for those who would use the INS' new population estimates to argue for a crackdown against illegal immigrants. We've been pretty harsh for the past three years, approving initiatives like Proposition 187 and prodding Congress to cut benefits for even legal immigrants. And that has not made much of a dent in the illegal flow either.
Some may respond that Proposition 187 has not even been enforced yet because of legal challenges, but that's not the way it is seen in immigrant communities. It has generated enough scary publicity that it is very unlikely that any immigrant has failed to get the intended message: Your kind are no longer welcome here.
Yet they keep on coming.
Why? Because the complexity of the immigration "problem" defies simple, if attractive, "solutions" like both the IRCA amnesty and Proposition 187. That's why I normally try to avoid simplistic words like "problem" and "solution" in writing about immigration. For immigration, particularly from Mexico, is a complex phenomenon driven by demographics, economics and even history. Ultimately it is the end result of millions of individual decisions made by millions of human beings. And neither governments nor laws can control those.
So are we powerless to halt illegal immigration? Probably. But that doesn't mean we can't find ways to regulate it. I've long thought that a modern version of the World War II-era bracero program, allowing Mexicans to work in this country legally, but as migrants rather than immigrants, would be in the best interests of both countries. It wouldn't stop every Mexican who wants to sneak across our southern border. But it might help relieve some of the pressure there for a few years. And that would be no small achievement.
It hasn't been widely reported yet, but the academic experts who track Mexican migration most carefully think they see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel: The long upward trend in Mexico's birth rate is finally declining. Demographers estimate that in the next five to 15 years, that should start to relieve the demographic pressures that force Mexicans to migrate in such numbers.
Within 20 years, Mexico also should have completed its long, painful transition from a closed, largely rural economy to one that is open, urban and able to compete in the modern world. That should relieve the economic pressures.
So we can at least hope that early in the next century the migratory flow from Mexico al Norte that began in the 1940s will have slowed to a trickle.
In other words, a significant part of our illegal immigration "problem" may "solve" itself if we're just patient enough.
In the meantime, we will have to be realistic about any interim "solutions" people come up with, even a modern version of the bracero program. If we set our expectations too high, they will surely fail--as both IRCA and Proposition 187 clearly have.