article

04.28.10

What Immigrant Crisis?

Arizona's governor says she had to sign a harsh anti-migrant bill to combat a state of siege. But immigrants were already leaving the United States in droves. Bryan Curtis on what's really threatening the state.

Arizona’s governor says she had to sign a harsh anti-migrant bill to combat a state of siege. But immigrants are leaving the place in droves. Bryan Curtis on what’s really threatening the state.

To listen to politicians in Arizona, which just passed a draconian anti-immigrant bill, you’d think they were surrounded by a fresh wave of illegal immigrants. Gov. Jan Brewer said she signed Senate Bill 1070 because of the “crisis caused by illegal immigration and Arizona’s porous border.”

This is, to be kind, highly misleading. While Arizona has more than its share of thorny problems, something very interesting has been happening with illegal immigrants that got obscured in the debate. They’ve been leaving.

“You’ve got a situation where the perception of people in Arizona, quite reasonably, is that the border isn’t secure,” says Edward Alden. “And yet by all the measurements we’ve put in place, it’s more secure than it has ever been.”

Mexican immigrants aren’t invading America. They’re packing up and going home, thanks largely to the recession. The latest numbers from the Department of Homeland Security, released in February, show the illegal immigrant population in America dropped from 11.6 million in January 2008 to 10.8 million in January 2009. That’s a loss of nearly 7 percent. The last time the illegal population dipped was in the late 1980s, when a federal law transformed a few million undocumented immigrants into American citizens overnight. So to the extent that we are in a historic moment for illegal immigration, it’s historic because immigrants are abandoning America in droves.

As supporters of the bill point out, Arizona was a special case among states. Thanks to tough security measures put in place in California and Texas during the 1990s, the Arizona-Mexico border became the favored highway into America. But here, too, the Homeland Security data are remarkable. In 2000, 725,000 people were apprehended illegally crossing the border in Arizona. By 2006, the number of apprehensions had fallen to 510,000. By 2009, it had plummeted to 249,000.

That number still isn’t close to zero. But the notion that border apprehensions are down nearly two-thirds in the last decade complicates the notion of a “crisis.”

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Another oft-stated rationale for the Arizona law was that the state was stepping in because the federal government had failed. Gov. Brewer said the “federal government has refused to fix the crisis.” This also ignores recent history. Since the last two years of George W. Bush’s administration, America’s federal immigration policy has become almost completely oriented toward “enforcement”—that is, deporting immigrants and keeping them out. Bush, who pushed immigration reform in his second term, was so stung by its failure that he ratcheted up workplace raids, resulting in the arrest and deportation of thousands. As I wrote in December, Barack Obama hasn’t really reversed Bush’s policies. He has largely continued them, if slightly more humanely. And both Bush and Obama presided over the building of the 700-mile U.S.-Mexican border fence, a massive and expensive commitment to border security.

Given that all arrows are pointing out, why would anyone think that we’re in the grip of an immigration crisis? Well, there’s terrifying stuff going on along the Arizona border. Drug gangs have turned Mexican border towns into a Grand Guignol of murder and beheadings. Some of that violence and criminal activity has slipped into the United States. In March, a popular Arizona rancher was murdered, allegedly—to hear anti-immigrant forces tell it—by Mexican smugglers, though no one has been formally charged. But it is important to separate the real and escalating problem of border violence from the declining problem of illegal immigration.

“You’ve got a situation where the perception of people in Arizona, quite reasonably, is that the border isn’t secure,” says Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And yet by all the measurements we’ve put in place, it’s more secure than it has ever been.”

This disconnect has spread to Washington. On Tuesday, Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator who actually favors immigration reform, told Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that her old home state was “under siege.”

Napolitano tried to point out that this was misleading. “Every marker, every milepost that has been laid down by the Congress in terms of number of agents, deployment of technology, construction of fencing, and the like has already either been completed or is within a hair's breadth of being completed,” Napolitano said. Then she wondered aloud “whether that goalpost”—the point at which the border is judged to be secure—“is just going to keep moving.”

It will, and this is the paradox we face. Immigrants have left; fences have been built to keep them out; more immigrants are being deported or forced out of their jobs. Yet we’re in the midst of a crisis, a perpetual siege, which can justify passing nearly any law, no matter how egregious.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.