As we begin the New Year with uncertainty as to which path immigration reform will take, if any, some pertinent data from 2014 suggest that illegal immigration remains at relative low levels . According to the Pew Hispanic Research Trends Project fewer Mexicans were apprehended at U.S. borders than non-Mexicans in 2014. In 60 years of Border Patrol data, this is an historic low unseen since 1970 and signifies a continual downward trend of immigration from Mexico since the Great Recession. However, when Mexican and non-Mexican immigrants are considered together, the total U.S. Border apprehensions amounted to 486,000, 16% higher than in 2013–but the overall level was still as low as it has been in decades. While apprehensions and deportations increased this year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) indicates that 56% of total apprehensions and removals were immigrants who had been convicted of a crime. In June 2014, the influx of 52,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America made a significant impact on these data, doubling the number of Central American immigrants from the previous year. During this period, the number of unaccompanied Mexican children apprehended declined from 17,000 to 16,000. The decline of Mexican immigrants crossing the border is indicative of an improving economic situation in Mexico while the increase of Central American immigrants, especially children, indicates worsening violence and economic conditions in those countries, driving their immigration to Mexico and the U.S.
The historically low rates of illegal immigration since the beginning of the Great Recession should give lawmakers an opportunity to fashion a solution to the problem. GOP lawmakers continue to argue that the first priority must be border enforcement–but with illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, already lower than it has been in years, maybe it’s time to broaden the discussion. The most effective way to discourage immigrants from crossing our borders illegally is to offer viable ways to let those whose skills we need come legally. Right now, opportunities are limited. If a prospective immigrant doesn’t already have a close relative in the United States–and, for the most part, that means a parent or child or spouse–the wait can take decades. The vaunted “line” that many enforcement-first advocates say illegal immigrants already in the U.S. should go to the back of doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way if you’re a Mexican or Central American with only a high school degree or less. Yet we need these workers in many industries, including agriculture and service jobs.
When the GOP-controlled Congress convenes it will have to grapple with the problem and do more than simply lambast President Obama. Lower illegal immigration flows should make the job easier.