Smell something, say something: there’s been no upsurge in undocumented immigration

August 7th, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Jon Stewart: “The best defense against bullsh__ is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”

I can think of no better guideline for what we’re trying to do here at OTE, so let’s take Jon up on his parting lead to us and post a couple of pictures regarding a point that most of the candidates were absolutely hammering on in last night’s Republican primary debate: the problem of unauthorized, or illegal immigration.

What no one mentioned was that the number of unauthorized immigrants has stabilized, and in the case of Mexico, is actually falling, as per the following two figures from the Pew Research Center. Certainly the impression left by the debate was that this situation is worsening. It is not.

First, here are the levels in unauthorized immigration, which leveled off a few years ago, meaning the net inflow (inflow-outflow of unauthorized immigrants) is around zero.


The data on undocumented immigrants from Mexico comes with more of a lag, but the most recent data shows net inflows have been negative, i.e., the number of undocumented Mexicans is declining.


Now, you might object to these levels of unauthorized persons here in the U.S. If so, you might also take some solace from the fact that they’ve stabilized in general and are falling re Mexicans. You might conclude, contrary to the rhetoric from the R’s last night, that our border patrol efforts are working.

But any implication that these levels have been rising as an increasing number of immigrants come to America without authorization is wrong.

Like the man said: smell something, say something.

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6 comments in reply to "Smell something, say something: there’s been no upsurge in undocumented immigration"

  1. Kevin Rica says:


    You also need to be careful with these “stock” data. The idea that the number has leveled off does not mean that net inflows are zero or measure the full demographic or job-market impact.

    Some illegal immigrants die, so just to replace those who die requires net positive immigration flows. (NB: All legal immigrants are given documents when they are granted legal status – therefore lack of documents is the gold standard that someone was not granted legal immigrant status. The term “undocumented immigrant” is an Orwellian, linguistic fraud implying that someone just hasn’t bother to do their paperwork. They are here living and working illegally – generally with fraudulent documents.)

    A significant portion of “legal” immigration consists of illegals obtaining a change in status. Often the immigration authorities do not have the resources or political will to litigate every last case. Those who move from illegal to legal status also need to be replaced by new illegal entries to stabilize the number of illegals.

    So for these two reasons, any assertion that “..the net inflow (inflow-outflow of unauthorized immigrants) is around zero” is mistaken.

    Also illegal immigrants do not confer their illegal status on their children. Their children are citizens by birth if they are born here. But since they are often born into poverty, the do represent a financial cost to society and the already inadequately-funded social safety net.

    The drop in illegal immigration does not mean the problem is going away on its own. A big reason that the inflow has subsided (although not to zero) is the poor job prospects at that end of the labor market. If the economy ever recovers, so will the flow of illegal immigrants. That will help keep wages from rising even in a strong labor market.

    As long as it is the implicit policy of the US to allow the desperately poor to come to this country in the absence of decent job prospects, poverty is not a bug in the system, it is a feature.

    It is a shame that neither side in the public debate can deal with the issues honestly. Trump calling illegals rapists is inexcusable. They are decent and extraordinarily hard working people on the whole. There are bad apples, but I can say the same about any group.

    But asserting that being willing to accept poor working conditions and worse wages is a necessary job skill is equally fatuous and maybe as unethical in a different way. Just because someone evaded the Border Patrol does not mean we have a job for him or her. If there are no jobs for inner-city kids in Baltimore, then there are no jobs for illegal immigrants. Martin O’Malley can’t have it both ways.

    Thank goodness Bernie has the guts to stand up on this issue and say that open borders hurt US youth.

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Good point re impact of recession, though improving labor market doesn’t seem to have reversed the trends in the figures (though the Mexican figure needs to be update to evaluate this possibility).

      • Kevin Rica says:

        The headline unemployment number is the only indication of a recovering labor market.

        Stagnant wages and falling labor market participation rates tell a very different story (as you yourself keep pointing out). The weakening flows of illegal immigrants may actually be another indicator of a weak labor market and evidence that headline unemployment is given too much credence.

  2. Denis Drew says:
    “Yet some economists and demographers who have studied Mexican immigration suggest that stricter security at the border could actually increase the number of undocumented immigrants in the country. One group of researchers estimates that by 2010, increased border enforcement over the decades had increased the number of unauthorized migrants in this country by 44 percent.”

    If this is so, then, maybe we should give thought to making the border with Mexico open to Mexicans only. They could move freely back and forth through designated check points — thinning out to the point of manageability all the other illegal immigration which now hides among the movement of millions of undocumented Mexicans. Make things much easier for the border patrol which would be much less inundated with numbers.

    Be infinitely more humane for Mexican families too who are now sealed on this side of the border once they get here.

    • Kevin Rica says:


      Tightening the border is a fraud used by both sides in the debate. The more important thing is enforcement of jobsite controls. As long as illegals are allowed to use fraudulent and stolen identities with utter impunity, people can always enter and stay, regardless of whether or not there are enough decent jobs.

      Truth is, our government has bent over backwards to avoid enforcing the law. It deliberately tolerates identity theft to avoid accidentally enforcing immigration laws and many states tolerate other consequent infractions, such as driving without a license. The unintended consequence of the 1986 immigration reform is how many other laws couldn’t be enforced if the entire apparatus of government was bent to the task of violating immigration law.

  3. Kevin Rica says:

    Interesting article re immigration in the WSJ today.

    It seems that lower immigration rates are raising wages for farm laborers (who da’ thunk it? – supply and demand works). It is not just immigration, but with other opportunities, laborers are leaving the farms for higher wages and working conditions elsewhere.

    The article cites a report by a “nonpartisan” (journalism speak for a single-issue advocacy group that the paper agrees with) organization that shows that contrary to other low-skilled positions, farm wages are going up (Apparently a violation of the employers’ entitlement to pay poverty wages.) The study is worth reading. See Figure 3.

    It shows that lower rates of immigration do raise wages (and logically that higher rates of immigration reduce wages).

    So, we may not be there yet, but reduced levels of immigration are having exactly the effect that first-principles economics was right all along: reduced labor supply raises wages.

    However, it will take more reductions in immigration before the effect spreads beyond the farm. Take home pay for migrant farm laborers is uncompetitively low compared to wages in other sectors, so farmers feel the effects first.