The Republican party's abysmal performance among Latino voters in the 2012 election, and the ensuing realization among many in the GOP that they need to change their stance on immigration or risk more defeats, have made it a real possibility that passage of the first comprehensive immigration reform bill in over a quarter-century could happen soon. The debate will no doubt be intense, so as it begins, some facts about the recent and not-so-recent history of immigration in America will be important to keep in mind.
Immigration had its first peak in the first decade of the 20th century, when over 8 million people from other countries became legal permanent residents of the United States, a number that wasn't exceeded again until the 1990s. By the 1960s, however, immigrants from North America (mostly Mexico) exceeded those from Europe; Asian immigrants exceeded Europeans in the 1970s. (These data, and many more, can be found in the Department of Homeland Security's annual yearbook of immigration statistics.)
After a half-century of decline, the foreign-born population—both in numbers and in proportion of the larger American population—began increasing in the 1970s, and has now reached a point where over 40 million U.S. residents, or around 13 percent of the population, was born abroad.
Not only are today's immigrants coming from different places than immigrants did a century ago, they're also going to different places. While earlier generations of immigrants settled in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest, today the state with the highest proportion of immigrants is California, where over one-quarter of the population is foreign-born (New York and New Jersey follow closely behind).
Some of the recent pressure to address illegal immigration has come because undocumented immigrants are moving into states where they were once rare. California, Texas, and Florida have the largest number of undocumented immigrants, but in the last decade, Georgia has seen its undocumented population double, while large percentage increases have been seen in North Carolina and Washington as well. And over that time, Florida saw its undocumented population decrease.
Those increases notwithstanding, the number of undocumented immigrants in the country has leveled off after a period of steady increases. That number peaked in 2007 at an estimated 12 million. But then the Great Recession hit, and the fewer jobs available in America, combined with a Mexican economy that recovered quicker than ours and increased border enforcement, made crossing the desert to get to the US a less attractive proposition. In fact, net migration from Mexico is now zero, and may be negative, as more people move from the US south than from Mexico north.
And contrary to what conservatives might be inclined to believe, the Obama administration has been incredibly aggressive about deporting immigrants. In 2012, for the first time in American history, the number of deportations exceeded 400,000.
It's common to hear Republicans say that before we can create a path to citizenship for those who are undocumented, we have to "secure the borders first." But the truth is that border enforcement is stronger now than it ever has been. In the last quarter-century there has been an explosion in federal spending on border protection and customs enforcement. In 2004, less than a decade ago, the Border Patrol employed 10,819 agents. By 2011 that number had doubled to over 21,000, and it continues to rise. As Doris Meissner, head of the INS under President Clinton and one of the authors of the report from which the following graph was taken, wrote, "Today, the federal government spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies than on all its other principal criminal law enforcement agencies combined. Spending for Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and US-VISIT reached nearly $18 billion in fiscal 2012. Contrast that with the $14.4 billion spent for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives."