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On Immigration, Following the Data Where It Leads

Debate: The debate on immigration in America continues to rage. People who hold right-of-center political beliefs seem to think that the U.S. immigration laws should be vigorously enforced. There may be some “wiggle room” on the right. For example, some conservatives believe there should be exceptions to deportation for those illegally in the United States so long as they have been here a fairly long time, paid taxes, stayed out of legal trouble, etc. Without commenting on the reasonableness of the conservative position, it is understandable.


The position held by Americans with left-of-center political beliefs is hard to fathom. While few liberals will openly say they are in favor of “open borders” the sum total of their beliefs seems to indicate that “open borders” is exactly what they seek.


This issue is important for Virginia because some areas of Virginia have very low numbers of foreign born residents, while other areas have very high numbers of foreign-born residents. For example, the 2010 Census found that 12.9% of people living in America were foreign born. Virginia had 11.4% of its residents recorded as being foreign born. However, Arlington County (Virginia’s 6th most populous county) had a foreign born percentage of 28% in 2000. Social services are affected by immigration. The cost of teaching English as a second language in public schools is directly impacted by the percentage of residents born in foreign (non English speaking) countries.


Author’s apology in advance – this is a long post. By far the longest I have ever published. However, this is a complex topic with both liberals and conservatives more than willing to misrepresent the data. I saw no way to properly handle the topic with brevity.


Just the facts, ma’am. The discussion about immigration is bedeviled by accidentally erroneous and willfully inaccurate “facts.” Unfortunately, some of the best information still comes from the 2010 Census making that data almost a decade out of date. But facts are facts, and even nine-year-old facts provide insight. For the purposes of this discussion: foreign-born residents of the United States shall include naturalized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary migrants, humanitarian migrants and unauthorized migrants.
The percentage of foreign born residents of the U.S. has been skyrocketingin recent decades. Going back to 1850 the percentage of foreign born residents had roughly equal twin peaks in 1890 and 1910 (at 14.75%). Starting in 1920 the percentage of foreign-born residents declined precipitously. That percentage went down every decade until it hit a low point of 4.7% in 1970. Since 1970 the percentage has increased every decade reaching 12.9% in 2010. The trend has apparently continued through the 2010s with Pew Research estimating 13.6% foreign born residents as of 2017. The notion that the United States has been “shutting its doors to immigrants” is quite simply preposterous.


Most immigrants are in the country legally. Pew Research estimates that 77% of foreign born residents are in the country legally: 45% (20.7 million) naturalized citizens, 27% (12.3 million) lawful permanent residents, 5% (2.2 million) temporary lawful residents and 23% (10.5 million) unauthorized immigrants. No reasonable person believes we should deport naturalized citizens or lawful permanent residents. The discussion needs to be about the number of temporary visas to issue, the number of legal immigrants to allow and what to do with those here illegally.


The distribution of foreign born residents varies widely by geography. California checks in with 27.2% foreign born while West Virginia records a low of 1.2%. The variation is extreme throughout Virginia as well. Manassas Park City recorded 31.6% between 2009 – 2013 while Highland County showed just 0.3% over the same period. Ninety-seven of Virginia’s municipalities had 5% or fewer foreign born, 25 had between 5.1% and 10%, five between 10.1% and 20%, seven between 20.1% and 30% and 1 over 30%. Every jurisdiction over 20% is in Northern Virginia. Richmond averages about 10%.


The economic impact of foreign born residents in the United States is hard to measure and politically contentious. Generally, direct social benefits are provided only to lawful permanent residents or naturalized citizens. However, children born to unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. automatically become US citizens. Should the social costs associated with these children count as a cost of immigration? Before you answer, remember that the vast majority of countries in the world, including all of Europe, do not grant birthright citizenship. One thing seems true – more immigrant-headed households (51%) use some form of welfare than native-born households (30%). Even this seemingly straightforward statistic is the subject of endless debate. I am using the Politifact analysis as a “referee.”


One thing seems sure – educating foreign-born children is more expensive than educating native born children. Under U.S. law, all students, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to a free, public education. However the cost of providing this education to foreign-born students is somewhat debated. Left-leaning organizations tend to address the matter on a qualitative / humanitarian basis. For example: “We’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” said Jorge Baron, of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “We should be able to handle this if we focus our energy and some resources and we make sure that kids are treated well, and treated the way we, in America, believe kids should be treated.” Right-wing organizations are more quantitative. Fox News (in 2014) estimated the cost of educating unauthorized / undocumented immigrant children was $760 million. Anti-immigration organization FAIR estimates the total costs of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) programs at $59.8 billion with Virginia recording a $1.3B cost. While I am suspicious of these FAIR numbers, I am equally convinced that educating the children of immigrants (especially including the citizenship birthright children) is expensive.
The influx of migrant children is increasing. EdWeek published some interesting statistics on migrant children:

  • Historically, most undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. were adult males in search of employment.  More recently, most people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are “unaccompanied minors” and families with children, many of them who turn themselves into officials to make asylum claims.
  • In fiscal year 2018, 107,000 families with children and 50,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border, a 42% and 22% increase respectively, over the previous year.
  • The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement served fewer than 8,000 children annually from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2012, the first nine years they tracked the numbers. In fiscal 2018 alone, the agency served nearly 50,000 children.

In fiscal year 2018, 107,000 families with children and 50,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border, a 42% and 22% increase respectively, over the previous year.
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement served fewer than 8,000 children annually from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2012, the first nine years they tracked the numbers. In fiscal 2018 alone, the agency served nearly 50,000 children.


“So far in fiscal year 2019, we’ve had four record-breaking months of apprehensions of family units at the southern border,” says Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.


The wrap: Leftists and “Never Trump” Republicans seem tireless in criticizing Donald Trump’s efforts to control immigration. Terms like “know-nothing” and “nativist” are tossed with impunity. These same people seem to forget that Barack Obama was once known as “the deporter in chief” and, as of 2016, had deported more people than any other president. Trump, on the other hand, has slowed the level of deportations from his predecessor. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of continually escalating immigration, sanctuary cities and anti-ICE protests continue to gain momentum. What is it that the left and Never Trumpers want (other than to criticize Trump)? If it’s open borders then say so! Just remember to explain how you intend to pay for those open borders.


A version of this Commentary was originally published in the August 23, 2019 edition of the online Bacon’s Rebellion.
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