Nation of immigrants

Our view: The debate over illegal immigrants is growing more raucous even as actual immigration declines

but America can't grow and prosper in future years without the energy and talent new arrivals bring

September 07, 2010

Here's a puzzler: Why has the debate over illegal immigrants grown so much more raucous over the last two or three years, even as the number of immigrants entering the country illegally during that time has actually fallen dramatically?

According to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, unauthorized immigration to the U.S. has dropped by nearly two-thirds — from a high of 850,000 people in 2007, the year the Great Recession began, to 300,000 in 2009.

At the same, the Pew figures suggest, the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. also dropped by nearly a million people over the same period — from a peak of 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million two years later.

Apparently the tough times created by the recession caused many people who might otherwise have come here illegally to seek work to stay put instead. At the same time, a substantial number of people who were already living in the country were unable to find work and chose to leave. Though illegal immigrants are often blamed for taking jobs from U.S. citizens, the Pew study noted that unemployment among illegal immigrants was even higher than the national average of 9.5 percent.

Of course, the presence of more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country is still cause for concern. The Pew report found that most of the Latino immigrants deterred by the recession from trying to cross our southern border were from countries other than Mexico — and that similarly, most of those who left the U.S. over the last three years were from other Latin American countries.

By contrast, it appears that illegal immigrants from Mexico, who make up 60 percent of the unauthorized immigrant population, were more likely to try to ride out the recession rather than go home. That may have had made anyone of Mexican origin more likely to be targeted by law-enforcement police and immigration authorities as potential violators, even thought the vast majority of Mexicans in the U.S. have entered the country legally.

President Obama has rightly condemned the demagogy of politicians in states like Arizona and Virginia who play on people's fear that the country is being overrun by illegal immigrants committing crimes and taking jobs away from law-abiding citizens in a time of severe economic hardship. That's the kind of ugly stereotyping that leads to racial and ethnic profiling by police and an upsurge in hate crimes against Latinos by people resentful of their presence here.

That's why it's so important to keep the issue of illegal immigration in perspective, and to craft solutions based on a rational approach to problems rather than on emotion. True, 11 million unauthorized immigrants sounds like an enormous challenge. But even that seemingly large number is, in reality, only about a third of 1 percent of the total U.S. population of 308 million. To be sure, it's a situation that must be carefully managed; but in no way does it constitute a mortal threat to the republic, and legitimate concern over illegal immigrants must not turn into the demonization of immigrants in general.

We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, of people determined to pick up and leave where they were to start new lives on these shores, where greater opportunity and freedom for themselves and their families awaited — even if that meant skirting the law for some of them. The potpourri of ideas, languages, customs, cuisines and cultures the world's immigrants brought with them are all ores in the grand melting pot of America's multicultural, multiethnic national identity. In our diversity lies our greatest strength.

We need to relearn how much every new arriving group has contributed to this country's emergence as a world power and to recognize how much our continued growth depends on a constant infusion of new peoples who share our dreams.

In a highly developed society such as ours, immigrants help make up for the falling birthrates typical of industrialized nations; at present the U.S. birthrate is just below the replacement rate of 2.09 births per woman needed to maintain current population levels. We can't grow without immigration.

That's why the administration and Congress must come together to produce comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the need to make our borders more secure while at the same time offering unauthorized immigrants who are already here a path to legal status. We can't simply kick millions of people out of the country, especially if we're going to need them to help create the kind of future in which American can continue to grow and prosper.

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