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What Immigration Crisis? Time Capsule GOP Debate Misses Recent Trends

In Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate in Arizona a predictable event occurred. When the issue of immigration came up--finally, after some 45 minutes--candidates fought to strike the harshest chord. Further, each candidate assured the base that they would not only drop the Federal lawsuits against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws but turn it into a national model.

Clearly, they do not follow the cues of the American public because as much as Americans favor greater control at the border they also favor more humane immigration policies: when asked in a recent Gallup poll about a preferred U.S. government policy towards illegal immigrants already in the country, 64 percent say that they would allow them to remain and become U.S. citizens, if they meet certain requirements. Only 21 percent of them favor deportations.

In that same poll, however, 64 percent of Americans said that they are dissatisfied with the level of immigration into the country today. When asked further, 42 percent of those who expressed dissatisfaction argued that they want current immigration levels to decrease.

What most Americans have not noticed, and is so counter to the conservative perspective it doesn't register, is the reality that immigration levels have decreased significantly. Immigration from Mexico, which over the past two decades represented the single largest source of immigrants to the U.S, has been shrinking for a few years now. In 2010 fewer than 100,000 border crossers and visa violators settled in the country, down from about 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004. Douglass Massey, co-director of the Mexican migration project at Princeton University and probably the nation’s leading expert on the subject has argued that immigration from Mexico is at its lowest level in 60 years

At the same time, the conventional wisdom that immigration enforcement is not working also diverges from the facts. In a June 2011 Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans said that it was extremely important for them that the government takes steps to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. But this is exactly what the government has been doing for years, and doing successfully. As The Economist recently reported, today there are over 17,000 Border Patrol agents on the border with Mexico, a fivefold increase since 1993. These agents also have the most sophisticated technology ever available to do their job, including surveillance drones. In addition, a full third of the border is now fenced. Where it is not fenced the terrain is so remote and rugged “that it is so impractical or pointless to do so.” This has certainly helped deter crossings, which are at its lowest levels ever, albeit also because unauthorized migration has slowed down. It used to be that border patrol agents were highly outnumbered. Now they have the capacity to respond to almost every single event, and in many occasions with plenty of agents.

The government, however, is not only better at controlling the border but more efficient than ever at enforcing immigration law inside the country, for better or worse. Immigrant detentions and deportations are at its highest ever due to greater enforcement at the workplace and in local communities. Last fiscal year, almost 400,000 immigrants were deported.

Despite this, Republicans remain a broken record on immigration. They would complete the fence! Even if that is already irrational. They would send more Border Patrol agents! Even if they will have nothing to do.

Or maybe they are just trying to survive. Republicans know that facilitating the political integration of 11.2 million unauthorized migrants currently in the country, would change dramatically the political map, in a way not in their favor. Even now that they have not yet fully flexed their political muscle, Latinos are transforming the political geography in favor of Democrats.

New estimates from Bill Whalen of the Hoover institution suggest that Latinos might play an even more important role in 2012. Whalen thinks Obama could carry three crucial states, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, with a smaller share of the white electorate if Latino support is comparable to 2008 levels.