What Happens When the Border Is Secure?

As Greg Sargent notes, there’s a very important piece of news reported by WaPo’s Jerry Markon last night: the U.S./Mexican border appears to be significantly more “secure,” and at any event, the flow of illegal immigration has drastically dropped even though the U.S. economy–long assumed to be the magnet for illegal immigration–is steadily improving.

As the Department of Homeland Security continues to pour money into border security, evidence is emerging that illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades. The nation’s population of illegal immigrants, which more than tripled, to 12.2 million, between 1990 and 2007, has dropped by about 1 million, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center.

Much of Markon’s piece is devoted to the debate as to whether it is border security improvements or developments in Mexico that are responsible for the big drop in border crossings (likely it’s both). But from a political point of view, it may not matter that much.

Right now the one thing just about every Republican presidential candidate agrees on is that we’re experiencing this terrible border crisis which either requires a complete halt to any talk about legalization (so as not to encourage more illegal immigration) or at least a slowdown of steps towards legalization until the crisis is under control. This way of looking at it conveniently lets said candidates avoid talking about what they ultimately want to happen to the remaining undocumented population–that’s all to be resolved manana, when we finally stop the hordes from overwhelming the southwest, perhaps sneaking in some IS terrorists while they are at it.

But eventually the facts as Markon is presenting them will penetrate the national debate, and the reality will set in that what to do with the people already here is the problem we have to face–now, not after some fictional securing of the border.

A key — but largely overlooked — sign of these ebbing flows is the changing makeup of the undocumented population. Until recent years, illegal immigrants tended to be young men streaming across the Southern border in pursuit of work. But demographic data show that the typical illegal immigrant now is much more likely someone who is 35 or older and has lived in the United States for a decade or more.

So GOP candidates really need to be pushed to tell us what they want to do with this longstanding U.S. resident: ship him or her and their family back “home” by force or give them a chance to earn a permanent spot in America’s future? We know how people like Steve King feel aabout it. But other GOP leaders should not be able to perpetually dodge it by pretending they are focusing on the border.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.