As More Candidates Campaign Against Illegal Immigration, Problem Seems to Wane

It's become increasingly clear that politicians have decided that taking a hard line against illegal immigration is a winner this election season. Today, Politico had a piece noting that more than 20 gubernatorial candidates around the country have come out in favor of Arizona-style immigration laws, as well as measures that curb access to public benefits for undocumented people. Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are scrambling to out-tough their opponents on the issue.

The irony of all this blustery talk, however, is that the illegal immigration problem appears to be receding in importance. A spate of studies released in the past few days contains findings that contradict some of the most common claims made by alarmists: that the influx of undocumented immigrants is out of control, that they're stealing jobs from U.S. workers, and that they're failing to integrate into American society.

Let's start with a Pew Hispanic Center study released yesterday. By analyzing Census data, researchers found that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country had declined from a peak of 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2009—the first decrease in two decades. Moreover, the annual inflow of such immigrants has plummeted by two thirds since mid-decade, from about 850,000 per year in the 2000-2005 period to about 300,000 per year in the 2007-2009 period. Even in Arizona—ground zero for the illegal immigration debate—the undocumented population went down from 2008 to 2009. So much for those invading hordes.

In addition, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco just came out with a study that examined the effect of immigrants on U.S. employment and productivity. Among the findings, which drew on state-level data: "Immigrants expand the economy's productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization. This produces efficiency gains and boosts income per worker. At the same time, evidence is scant that immigrants diminish the employment opportunities of U.S.-born workers." OK, so I guess they're not really ravaging the economy either. (For my recent exploration of the complexities of this issue, look here.)

Then there's a report put out by the Center for American Progress that delved into assimilation trends. Relying once again on Census data, the authors concluded that immigrants today are integrating just as rapidly as their predecessors in past decades. Researchers examined the period since 1990 and analyzed metrics like citizenship, home ownership, and English-language proficiency. "These benchmarks demonstrate that immigrants in our country ... are advancing at high rates no matter their social and economic status 20 years ago," the authors wrote. Not exactly a dire threat to American values.

These studies seem to show that the immigration problem is evolving on a favorable trajectory and that undocumented folks don't pose nearly the economic and cultural threat that demogogues ascribe to them. But you wouldn't know that from listening to all those candidates out there whipping up voters' fears with strident rhetoric. Tough economic times stoke the public's appetite for scapegoats, and illegal aliens have the unfortunate luck of providing a convenient one.