For the last five years, the present administration has been telling the American people that the number of illegal immigrants in the country is 11 million, and yet during this same period we have been informed that the deportation rate is about 400,000 per year, which by the way is almost double the rate of any other administration. So one has to ask oneself, how can the number of illegal immigrants remain constant in spite of the number of deportations? Is it because of the great uncertainty in the numbers being provided by the government? Or is it because the number of people deported is being immediately replaced by a same number of new illegal immigrants? The answer is a combination of both premises.
We have never seen an official statement of the level of confidence in the 11 million number. The uncertainty of this number can be illustrated with two examples. We know from experience that in 1986, when amnesty was granted to what was believed to be between 700,000 to 1.1 million individuals, the actual number turned out to be three to five times higher.
The second example of such uncertainty was found by the 2006-2007 Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury, which spent almost one year analyzing the effects of immigration in this county. Several county officials were interviewed in closed sessions, and their estimates of illegal immigrants in the county were extremely varied: from 8-25 percent of the total county population, or from about 34,000 to 125,000 individuals. Actual numbers are not known.
This level of uncertainty probably does not exist at the national level. But certainly we should not be so fast to dismiss the claims made by some private groups that the national number is much higher than 11 million and could even exceed 20 million.
As far as controlling the flow of new illegal immigrants entering the country, a new uncertainty arises. The number may not be 2 million in the last five years but certainly is substantial. The southern border is not secure; reports from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) make it clear that the apprehension rate may be less but still remains high; the border is not secured regardless of what the administration tries to tell us.
If we look at all these uncertainties, one has to pose a question: Why would any entity try to solve a problem when the magnitude of the issue is unknown? Common sense indicates that before anybody tries to tackle any issue, the size and implications must be known. The level of uncertainty gives one pause. If the actual number should turn out to be two or three times the 11 million estimate, the bureaucratic and economic impacts would be stunning.
Can anybody imagine the programs and agencies required to verify the information for anyone to become legalized? Any new immigration policy will likely include requirements that need to be confirmed, such as length of stay in country, names and aliases employed, possible criminal records in country and elsewhere, possible use of bogus social security numbers and other identifications. Collecting such information would require coordination of several agencies in this and other countries. The Affordable Care Act had to deal with much simpler issues; after almost four years and an expenditure in the billions of dollars, it still suffers from serious problems and uncertainties.
Despite all of the uncertainties, we need to develop a humane and legal process that would benefit the country as well as those individuals who want to become U.S. citizens and obey our laws and Constitution. If people can continue to enter the country by walking across the border or employ visitor, student, or any other temporary visas to remain permanently, we will still have the problem.
So what are possible solutions in order to have this be a humane and legal process? First is the need to secure the borders, which includes all physical borders, and also control the system whereby people can enter the country with visitor, student, and other temporary visas and then remain permanently. In addition, all of those who want to be considered for a legalization process should be given a fixed period of time to register, and during this “time-out” period, a credible count could be obtained before initiating the process. Once those who are living illegally in the country make positive applications to become citizens and the government makes a sincere commitment to secure the border and eliminate visa violations, we will be able to initiate a process that satisfies most concerns.
Albert Mercado was foreman of the 2006-07 Santa Barbara County Grand Jury.