If there is one thing that the past few decades of immigration enforcement has made clear, it’s that unauthorized immigration responds much more to the U.S. job market and the natural desire for family reunification than it does to border fences or the ubiquitous presence of armed immigration agents. Since the last major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in 1986, the federal government has spent an estimated $186.8 billion on immigration enforcement. But, because the 1986 reforms failed to create flexible legal channels for future immigration, all those billions of dollars did not keep new unauthorized immigrants out of the United States, nor persuade them to leave once they were here. As a result, over the past two-and-a-half decades, the number of unauthorized immigrants has tripled to more than 11 million. This happened during Republican and Democratic administrations alike, slowing during economic downturns and speeding up during economic good times.

Yet the nativist Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) wants to focus only on the Obama administration, even though—as CIS acknowledges—the pace of unauthorized immigration was greater during the administration of George W. Bush, and even though new unauthorized immigration during the Obama years was completely offset by the departure or death of unauthorized immigrants who were here already. In light of these substantial caveats, exactly what is the point that CIS is trying to make? That there would have been 2.5 million fewer unauthorized immigrants in the United States had the administration somehow not allowed any new unauthorized immigrants to make it to American soil.

In other words, if the Obama administration had created a perfect system of immigration enforcement, the unauthorized population today would be around 8.7 million rather than 11.2 million. This is a feat that would have required a 100 percent success rate in preventing unauthorized immigrants from crossing the border or overstaying a visa. However, this is a fantasy. A report from the Congressional Research Service notes that “most experts agree that preventing 100% of unlawful entries across any border is an impossible task—particularly a border as large and open as that of the United States.” Likewise, Edward Alden, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), has made the same point in testimony before Congress.

Perhaps more to the point, striving to get as close to a 100 percent sealed border as humanly possible would turn the United States into a much different country than it is today. In a 2013 report, Managing Illegal Immigration to the United States: How Effective Is Enforcement?, CFR concluded that Communist East Germany’s border would be the closest historical parallel to the scenario of a U.S. border under 100 percent “operational control.” Yet even 1970s East Germany, with a highly militarized border where officers were ordered to “shoot and kill,” was only able to achieve a 95 percent apprehension rate. Furthermore, none of this would have any bearing on visa overstays. If one also keeps in mind that Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the United States, turning our shared border into a modern-day equivalent of the Berlin Wall makes no sense. As Edward Alden has said: “You can’t seal an open, democratic country like the United States, and not really in some fundamental way damage what we are as a country.”

CIS seems to know what it wants: no unauthorized immigrants. The question is, how many American values is CIS willing to sacrifice in order to reach that goal.

Photo by Brandon Grasley.

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