Why the surprise over illegal immigration that's only poised to grow?

Why the surprise over illegal immigration that's only poised to grow?
© Reuters/Voice of America

Why is America apparently surprised over illegal immigration? 

Why does the U.S. government appear so ill prepared to deal with the repeated waves of men and women, as well as children, unlawfully crossing its borders? And why do officials seemingly fail to understand that visa overstayers and those released into the country awaiting a judicial hearing don't ever expect to be returned to their home countries? 

America offers few sensible answers or effective policies to address the many questions concerning illegal immigration. As a result, the majority of Americans are not confident with the administration’s handling of the immigration.

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Frustrations with illegal immigration have led to a rise in anti-migrant sentiments, demonstrations against illegal immigration and violence towards immigrants. Also importantly, they have contributed to shifts of American voters, especially independents, to the right and support for nativist policies and individuals offering high walls, closed borders and zero tolerance policies. 

Over the years, surveys have repeatedly found approximately 15 percent of the world’s adults, or more than 800 million men and women, wanting to migrate, either legally or illegally, to another country. If children of those men and women are included in that estimate, the total number of people wanting to migrate would be more than 1 billion.

Among sub-Saharan African countries, one-third of adults would like to move permanently to another country. In many of those countries, such as Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, half or more want to migrate. 

More than one-quarter of adults in Latin America and the Caribbean would like to move to another country. In El Salvador, a majority want to leave the country and nearly two-thirds of Haitians wish to migrate. 

Some Asian countries also have high levels of citizens wanting to migrate. In Afghanistan, for example, nearly half the women want to leave that worn-torn country, and that proportion was prior to the Taliban’s recent takeover of the government.

The destination countries are the wealthy developed nations, with the U.S. being the top choice followed by Canada, Germany, France, Australia and the United Kingdom. America and other destinations offer employment, services, opportunities, benefits, safety, human rights and security. 

Simply, among the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, 42 million people would like to migrate permanently to the United States. That number of potential migrants from that region alone is about 40 times the size of America’s annual number of immigrants.

The number of migrants residing unlawfully in the U.S. is 11 million, or about triple the 1990 estimate of 3.5 million. How best to address those unlawfully resident in the U.S. remains a controversial political issue that Congress has been unable to resolve.

While some wish to offer a pathway to citizenship to the millions of unauthorized migrants, others recommend repatriation. And still others prefer to maintain the status quo, especially those who benefit from employing unauthorized migrants. It is estimated that 7 million unauthorized migrants are in the U.S. workforce, primarily as farmworkers, construction laborers, food service providers, custodial staff and personal care aides. 

Also, some emphasize the various difficulties in deporting some 11 million unauthorized migrants. To deport all unauthorized migrants would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition to its negative impact on certain sectors of the American economy, government agencies would face logistical problems and objections to repatriating millions of unauthorized migrants.

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For a variety of reasons, America is tolerating illegal immigration. On the southern border, however, some border agents are disgusted with the situation and considering leaving over the administration’s “welcome to America” policies and sharp rise in apprehensions. 

The August figure of close to 210,000 is the highest monthly total of migrant encounters at the southern border since March 2000. More than 1 million encounters have occurred year-to-date during the current fiscal year 2021. 

In addition, an estimated 600,000 migrants have been released into the U.S. this year with notices to appear or report, which has encouraged others to try to cross the border. Also, hundreds of thousands have escaped into the country, recorded as “got-aways,” without any processing.  

Except for the relatively small numbers who have been convicted of crimes, the arrest and repatriation of millions of migrants residing unlawfully in the U.S appear unlikely and the deportations of unauthorized migrants are at a record low. Recently issued administration guidelines instruct immigration officials to no longer detain and repatriate migrants based on their illegal status alone. The focus is on those who pose a safety threat, taking into account “advanced or tender age” individuals as well as the effect on the person’s family.

Irrespective of one’s views about offering a pathway to U.S. citizenship to unauthorized migrants, it should be clear that doing so sends a clear message to others who may consider illegal immigration in the future. Basically, it says that it doesn’t matter whether you are residing in the country legally or illegally, because eventually the government will permit you to stay and provide a pathway to citizenship. 

Based on past experiences and projected trends, one would reasonably conclude that the continuing monthly arrivals of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children at its southern border should not be a surprise for America. 

By now, despite the issuance of proclamations, the government should acknowledge that waves of illegal immigration to the United States will most likely continue for the foreseeable future.

A critical migration question that remains for America in the months and years ahead, and particularly relevant for the upcoming 2024 presidential election, concerns the total number of unauthorized migrants the country will tolerate. 

Given the 200 million people mainly in poor developing countries who want to migrate permanently to the United States, the future total number of unauthorized migrants in America will likely be many times greater than the 11 million currently residing in the country.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."