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The futility of border spending in one graph

One of the points I made in my column on immigration was that it doesn't make much sense to orient our system around family unification rather than economic need. We should set our immigration policies to maximize their benefit to us, not to maximize their benefit to the particular foreign families that manage to get a green card for one of their members. Darrell West, author of "Brain Gain," estimates that restricting visas to immediate family members only would free up about 160,000 slots a year -- slots that we could allocate more strategically.

But one of the points I didn't make was that it really doesn't make sense to orient our immigration system around ever-more border security. Consider this graph from the Hamilton Project:


There's little evidence that the money we're spending fortifying the border is decreasing the number of illegal immigrants in the country. In fact, it's probably doing the reverse. The difficulty of crossing the border doesn't keep desperate immigrants out, as paying a coyote and taking the risk to enter America is worth it to them. But it does keep them in, as it's harder to leave and then come back. That makes for a more permanent population of illegal immigrants, which is presumably not the intent.

By Ezra Klein  | September 27, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Immigration  
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Then again, an immigration policy that focuses on family reunification makes sense, not just on humanitarian grounds (which is really big ground, after all) but for economic reasons: immigrant workers whose families are here will spend their money here rather than sending it all back to, say, Somalia.

We are a nation of immigrants not just because it benefits us economically but because we have opened our arms to people in need. My family didn't come to this country for better jobs: they came for their lives and their freedom. To focus purely on domestic economic factors misses the boat (pun not intended). Let's not repeat the ugly late 19th-century mistakes involved in bringing cheap Chinese (male) labor here. Economic arguments without a social heart are no arguments at all.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | September 27, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Hey Ezra,

Have you ever thought about making a hyper-linked category for your "one graph" posts? They've been really useful as quick 'n dirty references and starting points for issue literacy. Thanks!

Posted by: walkdp77 | September 27, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

The driving force behind illegal immigrants is a booming job market. This graph points out that as the job market decreased (the recession), so did illegal immigration.

The Hamilton project states, "A major economic concern is how immigrants influence the wages and employment prospects of U.S. workers." I ask you to consider a twist on this statement.

A major economic concern for illegal immigrants is how the economy influences the wages and employment prospects of illegal workers. If relatives and friends inside the United States paint a poor picture of unemployment, it is likely potential illegal immigrants would be less willing to risk the trip only to arrive in a situation similar to where they started.

Posted by: RisingTideLiftsAllBoats | September 27, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

This could be more properly titled the fear pandering graph.

I still remain amazed at how little attention fear-based issue spending receives; e.g. anti-immigration and war. At the same time, how much attention is paid to non-economic issues like a single mosque in the US. We're drowning in a swiriling cesspool of our own fears and won't spend money on saving ourselves from ourselves.

Posted by: Jaycal | September 27, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Is there a compelling reason not to use this graph to make the exact opposite argument, though? The simplest explanation is "enforcement spending goes up, unauthorized immigrant population goes down" -- Ezra states "There's little evidence that the money we're spending fortifying the border is decreasing the number of illegal immigrants in the country", when in fact that's exactly what the graph appears to imply.

Also: I hate-hate-hate the use of scale in the graph. Neither value is based at zero and the relative ranges are mismatched. The high-divided-by-low range of the two variables are 1.24 and 1.72 -- yet it's graphed to appear equal. Why so deceptive?!?!

Posted by: masseydvt | September 27, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

If you want a a guaranteed low cost and effective way to end illegal immigration whether one is talking about someone crossing the southern or northern borders illegally or illegally over staying a visa, the way forward is to have a tamper proof biometric NATIONAL ID CARD. If you want a job, if you want government services, if you want to open a bank account, or simply if you want to survive in this country, you must produce the NATIONAL ID CARD. If someone whether it be a fortune 500 company or a homeowner hires someone who does not possess the card, make the penalties so severe that no one will even think of hiring someone illegally. Sadly, the chances of his happening are nil. The civil libertarians will oppose it, big business will oppose it, special interests that want open borders will oppose it, and on and on. This being said, I have given everyone a way to end illegal immigration.

Posted by: jeffreed | September 27, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

The physical border can never be 100% secured; that's why we need effective worksite enforcement as was promised to us in 1986 with the one-time only legalization program. We need E-Verify to be mandated to check every job in the US, existing and future hires too. That will be much more effective than border fencing in keeping people not entitled to work here out of the workplace. Sadly, most businesses and the government would like to see E-Verify go away so they can keep the status quo. Worksite enforcement is a separate issue from immigration policy - don't confuse the two.

Posted by: merbc | September 27, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Agree: your "In one graph" series has been very enlightening.

Disagree: I draw the precisely opposite conclusion from this one graph, at least as devil's-advocate, to wit: there appears to be a minimum cost to securing the border, around $14 bil, above which extra spending is directly efficacious at reducing the illegal population. Note that the downturn begins before the "start of the recession." Are migrant workers uncanny financial forecasters?

Posted by: johnnynyquist | September 27, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

masseydvt's point exactly. I wonder what other inferences could be drawn from events that occurred at about the time the recession began.

Posted by: Scott85 | September 27, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

"Note that the downturn begins before the "start of the recession." Are migrant workers uncanny financial forecasters?"

These appear to be annual data points, so all we can really tell is that our estimate of the illegal population in 2008 was lower than that of 2007.

Note that unemployment troughed at 4.4% in early 2007, and the 2008 unemployment average was 5.8% (for comparison, in 2000 unemployment troughed at 3.8% and it avearged 4.7% in 2001). It could well be that the labor market is the driving force here, not the dollars spent. It will be useful to see how illegal immigration responds when unemployment begins to fall.

Posted by: justin84 | September 27, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

*****If you want a a guaranteed low cost and effective way to end illegal immigration whether one is talking about someone crossing the southern or northern borders illegally or illegally over staying a visa, the way forward is to have a tamper proof biometric NATIONAL ID CARD.*******

jeffreed: your mere assertions about the desirability of a national ID card system hardly constitute proof that it would be "cost effective" or that it would "guarantee" results, or that it would "end" illegal immigration. I think developing and implementing a system in an country of 310 million people -- who collectively possess myriad immigration statuses -- would be vastly expensive. Even a low rate of imperfection (ie., a "legal" worker getting hit by "false" alarms) would create a very expensive headache. Moreover, plenty of illegal immigrants are willing to work under the table; lack of an ID is hardly an issue to such people, so it's hard to see why illegal immigration would cease.

That said, I'm open to the idea of a national biometric ID system, and I have no objection to studying the issue. I just think we're a ways off from being able to implement the idea in a cost effective or efficient manor, and I think you've oversold it a bit.

Posted by: Jasper999 | September 27, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see this graph like this:
Rate of Change of Undocumented Population vs. Border Control Spending. Take a derivative, compare, lets see what the results look like.

Ultimately, I agree with the point that's trying to be made. Undocumented immigration is a function of the economy, not our efforts at border control. This graph, however, demonstrates little.

Posted by: gobaers | September 28, 2010 12:47 AM | Report abuse

Man Ezra, this is pretty harsh. So a family that successfully jumps through all the ridiculous hoops of our immigration system is still supposed to stay split, possibly forever? Because Wal-Mart needs more low-wage workers?

Posted by: NS12345 | September 28, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

In this post 9/11 world, your suggesting that there is no good reason to secure our borders - then why are kids losing their lives in Afghanistan?

Posted by: kendog100 | September 29, 2010 8:05 AM | Report abuse

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