With the immigration debate heating up, you'd think that the United States was besieged by growing numbers of illegal immigrants. But you'd be wrong.
According to a February report by the Department of Homeland Security, the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States actually dropped by a whopping 1 million between 2008 and 2009, which amounts to the sharpest decrease in 30 years. It was the second year of declining numbers.
Likewise, the Border Patrol reports that apprehensions are down by more than 60 percent since 2000, to 550,000 last year, the lowest number in 35 years, even though the border is more tightly controlled than ever. As William Finnegan wrote recently in the New Yorker, "The southern border, far from being 'unsecured,' is in better shape than it has been for years — better managed and less porous."
And there's more. Despite the drumbeat about hordes of undocumented Mexicans who have come north to take our jobs, consider this: According to the Pew Hispanic Center, between 2005 and 2008, the number of Mexican migrants arriving in the United States actually declined by 40 percent.
It's not only the number of Mexican illegal immigrants that has dropped. The fact that the U.S. economy is struggling has discouraged high-skilled immigrants from around the globe from looking for jobs in America.
Finally, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey last fall revealed a historic decline in the percentage of U.S. residents who are foreign-born — from 12.6 percent in 2007 to 12.5 percent in 2008. That represents only about 40,000 people numerically, but it is the first time since the 1970 census — 40 years ago — that the foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population has gone down.
So in the face of all this data showing that legal and illegal immigration is down dramatically, what's all the fuss about? Why has the debate turned so nasty?
The easy answer, of course, is that the economy is tough, and historically people have looked for targets to blame for their feelings of impotence.
But today I think there are other contributing factors. The political discourse overall is pretty horrific, and while immigration always has brought out the worst in people, today's polarized climate only makes matters worse.
Furthermore, conservatives no longer have an authoritative voice of reason pressing for decency on the issue. Four years ago, after President Bush unsuccessfully launched his own effort at comprehensive immigration reform, he warned against "harsh, ugly rhetoric." Today, Bush is hardly heard from and the right has an "open borders" policy on over-the-top rhetoric.
There may be those who hope that all this harsh rhetoric will keep even more illegal immigrants at home. But they'd be silly to think that such invective only makes life harder for immigrants. Unfortunately, it also actively degrades our culture, our public square and our democracy.