What to do with millions of illegal aliens in the US? The issue is still a sleeper in the presidential campaign. But maybe not for long. Americans who want strict law enforcement before a "total" immigration solution now have proof that stronger enforcement can bring results.
Exhibit A: The illegal migrant population has dropped an estimated 11 percent through May after hitting a peak last August, based on census data used in a report by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Much of that decline is due to people who self-deported by slipping back across the border.
The drop began well before unemployment went up, which points to the real success story: Washington's wake-up call last summer to beef up enforcement, from plugging leaks in the border to cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers.
In raw numbers, the decline meant 1.3 million fewer illegal immigrants in the US, down from an estimated 12.5 million. Not bad for a year of attentive law enforcement but still a long way to go. And in another sign of change: Immigrant remittances to the Bank of Mexico are down after years of rising.
The study found the number of legal immigrants continues to rise, helping employers who are looking for low-wage workers.
Few people expect all remaining 11.2 million illegal immigrants to be forcibly deported. Many have lived in the US for decades, raising children who are American citizens. Those cases will need a blend of humane treatment and punishment, and then likely be set on a long course to legal residency.
This blend of justice and mercy should be the norm for federal raids on factories with illegal workers – the need to avoid rough treatment, especially of parents with children (but arrests nonetheless).
The latest big raid, last May on an Iowa meat plant, showed just how much government tolerance toward illegal entry into the US has helped create a corrosive culture of wrongdoing. The plant hired illegal aliens under 18 to work in deplorable conditions, while supervisors helped illegal workers obtain fraudulent IDs.
The CIS study estimates a 50 percent drop in the illegal population is possible in the next five years if current enforcement continues. Such a sustainable decline would send a credible signal to Americans that government is serious about enforcing immigration law in a post-9/11 world.
John McCain only reluctantly came around to the "enforcement first" idea last year while Barack Obama opposes it. Perhaps this study will make them true converts. Without credible enforcement, any legalization for long-time illegal aliens would only result in a flood of new migrants who think they can enter the US illegally and someday win legal residency.
Much of the credit for stronger enforcement goes to Secretary Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security. He has quickly increased the number of Border Patrol agents and detention centers. Employers are feeling the heat to hire legally. The fenced portion of the border is longer, too.
The efforts of this former federal judge reflect a strong bipartisan demand for "enforcement first." The next president would be wise to keep him on.