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It doesn't come as a great surprise to many in Northeast Georgia to learn that the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States is decreasing.
For first time in 20 years, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States is on the decline, dropping from a peak of 12 million to 11.1 million last year, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study released last week.
The number of migrants crossing the border last year dropped to 300,000 after topping out at 850,000 annually from 2001-2005. That leaves some 7 million illegal workers employed in the U.S., down 1 million from two years previous.
Demographers attribute the change to two key factors: the slumping U.S. job market and stricter border enforcement.
Of course, that's been evident here for awhile, going back to mid-2009 when anecdotal evidence showed that many Latino immigrants who came to our area for jobs had left once those jobs dried up.
That remains the case as the economy has recovered slowly from the recession. Unemployment remains near 10 percent in Georgia and nationwide, a trend seen at all income levels and industries. The jobless rate among illegal immigrants is even higher at 10.5 percent.
So if all this is true, does it mean illegal immigration is merely cyclical in nature and beyond the control of legislation and law enforcement?
"For me, the policy point is that illegal immigration isn't some unstoppable force," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "The illegal immigrant population does not have to grow all the time."
The study does show that the chief motivation to migrate illegally is economic, pure and simple. Folks come here from Mexico and other Latin American countries to work because their job prospects at home are weak. Once the job market here is equally poor, there is very little to keep them here.
Despite this, many insist Latinos have flooded to the U.S. over some desire to "take over" the country, or take back that part of it that used to be Mexico. There is no evidence of this. Nor is there hard data to show that those who come here are standing in line for government benefits (which they do not qualify for) or filling out fraudulent election ballots.
However, their children have swollen student rolls at many local schools, a trend that also has been in reverse. And because few have employer-provided health insurance, most must seek care in emergency rooms, driving up health costs. So there clearly is an economic cost to illegal immigration. Whether that cost is balanced by the work they do and taxes they pay depends on whose data you believe and the motivation behind it.
Beefing up security at the U.S.-Mexico border has had some effect, and certainly needs to be part of any immigration policy. But it's similar to stopping drug trafficking: You can intercept just so much. The real key to stopping it in the long run is having the demand dry up the supply.
In the case of immigration, that demand is for jobs. When they aren't available on this side of the border, there is little incentive to cross. Latinos come here to work, and they work hard. Several U.S. industries have benefited greatly from this ready and willing work force, particularly agriculture and construction. As those industries have tailed off, so has the need to hire more workers. So they go home.
And still the nation continues to debate how to approach the problem. So far, our leaders in Washington have failed to come up with a workable reform plan that all sides can agree on. That means tighter borders, a more streamlined immigration process for those who want to come here legally and — the real sticking point — a practical way to deal with the millions who already are here illegally.
In response to federal inaction, states and local jurisdictions have taken up the issue. Arizona passed a tough enforcement law that allows law officers to question anyone they feel may be here illegally and turn them over to federal authorities if they are, a law the federal government is challenging in court. Hall and other Georgia counties continue to implement the 287(g) program that turns arrestees over to the feds if they lack legal documentation.
Yet through all the tweaking of local laws, the economy is doing what none of these efforts have accomplished: keeping Latino immigrants from wanting to cross the border. Why leave your home and family if the life you're headed to is no better?
The question now is whether Congress will be motivated to tackle further immigration reform when it reconvenes after Labor Day. That's doubtful, considering it's an election year and it's a "third-rail" issue no one wants to touch lest they get zapped.
Yet that doesn't mean the government can't better enforce the laws already in place by emphasizing border enforcement and working more efficiently to get qualified immigrants documented and into the labor force, when there are jobs awaiting. Sweeping reform isn't necessary to accomplish these goals, and since it is unlikely, the nation's immigration agencies already are empowered to take up the slack and enact sensible solutions.
We'd all prefer to have a robust economy that is the envy of the world. Then we could find a way to channel the flow of immigrants from all corners of the world legally into those industries that have jobs waiting for them, for the safety and security of all.
Having millions of people living in the shadows in our own country is not desirable for anyone and needs to be addressed by our weak-kneed congressional leaders. It's a shame that it took an economic earthquake to do the job for them.