LET’S put aside the political, legal and constitutional implications of the executive action on immigration that the president will announce tonight for a moment and look at the problem that Barack Obama is trying to address. Here are all the numbers you need to have a well-informed argument about illegal immigration and deportation in America.
The Pew Research Center puts the number of illegal immigrants in America at 11.3m. If they were all in a single state it would be America’s eighth largest by population, just behind Ohio. As the chart below shows, this is not a new phenomenon. Though Mr Obama’s political opponents accuse him of being lax on immigration, the big increases took place before he took office.
House Republicans frequently say that they cannot possibly pass an immigration bill to address the legal status of all these people because they cannot trust the president to enforce the law. To support this argument they point to the fall in the number of people being picked up by the border patrol.
But this is a misleading number. There are fewer interceptions because fewer people are crossing the border. Migration from Mexico has fallen considerably from its peak almost a decade ago. This is partly reflective of an improved economy in Mexico (though the gap in income per person with America is still wide) and the end of the construction boom north of the border. But it is also because border enforcement has grown tougher. The border patrol is probably the most lavishly funded bit of the federal government.
It stretches credulity to argue that all this money has resulted in a more porous border. America spends more on immigration enforcement than on the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined.
While the number of people coming into America has fallen, the outflow has increased. Those who make a living smuggling people across the border recognise that the border is harder to cross, which is why they switched their business model to bringing in children earlier this year, as youths are covered by different laws than adults.
People who think the president has deported too many people look at this chart and conclude that he is the deporter-in-chief. Those who think his administration should be deporting even more people claim that these numbers have been manipulated: the Department of Homeland Security now includes people sent back after a failed attempt to cross, which is fairly new. And a lot of the deported these days are folks who recently crossed the border. Of the 370,000 deportations carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the fiscal year 2013, 235,000 were picked up near the border, detained and then removed. That leaves 135,000 who were picked up in the interior of the country and subsequently deported.
Some of these people have been living in America for a long time and have children who are American citizens. Last year I interviewed a man called Octavio Nava Cabrera who had come to America as a teenager in 1986. He has an American son who was at college in Arizona when we spoke. In 2013 Mr Nava Cabrera was pulled over by police officers in Illinois who said he had run a stop sign and he was subsequently deported. Nobody knows for sure how many people are in Mr Nava Cabrera’s position. But it is a significant number. They are likely to be the beneficiaries of the president’s amnesty.