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Immigration enforcement is working. Now we need to look at what isn't.

U.S. Border Patrol detains a group of suspected illegal immigrants at the Arizona-Mexico border.
U.S. Border Patrol detains a group of suspected illegal immigrants at the Arizona-Mexico border. (Ross D. Franklin/associated Press)

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By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, April 30, 2010

Forget the hyperventilated furor over the new Arizona immigration law and consider this overlooked fact: The number of illegal immigrants getting into the country has slowed to a relative trickle.

And more have left than are coming in. The number of unauthorized immigrants in the country has gone from an estimated high of 12.5 million in 2007 to 10.8 million in this year's first quarter and is still dropping, according to experts in the Census Bureau, the Department of Homeland Security and some think tanks.

The illegal immigration crisis, in other words, is easing -- and is not really a crisis, except in the eyes of activists, political opportunists and breathless media.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the main reason for the decline in unauthorized immigration is probably not the temporary phenomenon of the recession. If this were so, demand for work or residence visas would be down, and it is not. And Mexico, the source of nearly six out of every 10 undocumented immigrants, is suffering an even worse recession than the United States.

No, a major -- if not the main -- reason for the drop is that enforcement is working, something that many pro-immigration activists hate to admit and that restrictionists refuse to recognize.

After the dangerous overreaction in Arizona, what we need now is for everyone to calm down. The best thing that could happen would be if responsible Republican and Democratic leaders -- and there are many -- tuned out all the noise and started a discussion over who we want to admit into our country and what kind of country we want it to be. Only two basic premises should guide our response to illegal immigration: what is best for America and what works.

The anger in Arizona and elsewhere may be partly understandable, but someone among our leaders has to tell people that their feelings don't fit the facts and to -- yes -- trust the government. It has been doing a pretty good job gearing up to meet the immigration challenge under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Just look at the numbers.

How many unauthorized immigrants are still coming in is what's most important. This reflects the direction of the trends and the control we have over both our borders and people who overstay their visas. Remember: The United States historically has had few immigration controls. In 1979, when as a reporter I snuck across the border with a group of Mexicans, there was a laughably small force of fewer than 2,000 Border Patrol agents covering the 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico.

Today, the Border Patrol is 20,000 strong, supplemented by high-tech gadgetry and hundreds of miles of barriers. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that the number of Mexicans who managed to get through in the year ending in March 2009 was 175,000, the lowest number since 1970 and down from roughly 650,000 in 2005. The Border Patrol reports that apprehensions, a rough measure of traffic, were down nearly 70 percent last year from 2000.

Smugglers were paid $50 when I crossed. The cost is now $3,000 or more, itself a deterrent that reflects the difficulty.

Internally, deportations have skyrocketed, to between 230,000 and 390,000 annually for the past three years. The purpose is to deport those who have committed crimes, and while Homeland Security has deviated too far from this mission, it expects to expel 150,000 convicted criminals this year.

On crime, meanwhile, despite public fears, studies show that unauthorized immigrants commit violent crimes at a rate of four to eight times less than American citizens.

In Arizona, Homeland Security estimates that the number of illegal immigrants declined to 460,000 last year from a high of 550,000 and continues to drop, despite its deserts being among the last major gaps for crossers. Arizona's crime problem is really drug trafficking, a separate issue altogether.

Arizona, however, is a leader in an increasingly effective national movement with the federal government in cracking down on the employers of unauthorized immigrants and turning off the jobs magnet.

Enforcement will never be enough to end illegal immigration. We need legal channels so that temporary immigrant workers can fill our job demands, which is why we need comprehensive reform now. Part of that economic need -- and our moral and financial well-being -- is to legalize the ones who are here, too.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.


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