In Immigration Never Never Land; Anachronistic, Out of Touch

At no time in recent American immigration history has the gap between the facts on the ground and political discourse been as wide as it is today. There are now two parallel universes -- one based on data and reason, another based on myth and wishful thinking. If the Obama administration has nothing to be proud of -- no audacity and certainly no hope for immigrants, the Republican primary season is not helping. Rather than educate voters with facts and reasoned arguments, the statements and opinions of the leading candidates reflect anachronism and exaggerations at best, misrepresentations and outright falsehoods at worst.

Item: The border is broken, no comprehensive immigration reform can be considered until (and unless) the Southern border is brought under control. Attrition through (severe) enforcement leading to mass "self-deportations," is the answer to our immigration problems, according to Governor Mitt Romney.

Item: With Mexico's savage drug war raging in our Southern Border an epidemic of crime is bleeding into the U.S. side of the border. Furthermore, illegal immigrants are by their very nature lawbreakers. In the words of Senator Rick Santorum, "You can't be here for 20 years and commit only one illegal act because everything you're doing while you're here is against the law."

Item: New immigrants, especially Hispanics, are refusing to learn English choosing instead to remain in linguistic ghettos. In the words of Speaker Newt Gingrich, "We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."

In fact, the data from a number of sources -- including the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center, suggest that its been four years since the flows of illegal immigration to the U.S. came to a virtual stand still -- after which, unauthorized crossings went negative, i.e., more unauthorized immigrants are leaving than entering the country.

What about the Santorum immigrant-lawbreaker trope? Criminologists and other scholars, including Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, have established with robust data and sophisticated methodologies that immigrants in the United States, including illegal immigrants, tend to have lower rates of criminality than other comparable populations. New studies suggest that immigrant-rich cities in Border States have become some of the safest cities in the nation. The top four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border-states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, and Austin. Put another way, the closer your city is to Mexico and the more immigrants in your city, the safer you are likely to be.

Are immigrants, as Newt Gingrich argues, stuck in the ghetto? Linguists and other scholars have shown that the children of today's immigrants are learning English fast - most likely much faster and better than in previous waves of immigration. Furthermore, research by Princeton's Alejandro Portes, among others, suggests that even as new immigrants gravitate unambivalently towards English dominance, they (sadly) are loosing the ability to speak their home language within a generation.

Furthermore, new data on marriage patterns reveals that Asian and Latinos are marrying into other ethnicities at historically unprecedented rates. By 2010 26 percent of all Hispanics and 28 percent of all Asians -- the vast majority of them immigrants or second generation, married outside their ethnic group.

Memo to Mr. Gingrich: In the U.S., ghettoization is defeated in the bedroom.

America's ghettos, of course, would do well to cultivate the language of Cervantes, Borges, and Garcia Marquez.

While our political leaders recycle stale factoids and anachronisms the world moves with vertiginous speed. Immigration is paradigmatic of how new realities on the ground refuse to conform to platitudes, tired old clichés, and lazy logic.

To paraphrase Harry Truman, immigration is too important to leave it to the politicians.

The era of mass unauthorized immigration came to abrupt end precisely on September 15, 2008, the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the beginning of the Great Recession. In the words of Princeton scholar Douglas Massey, "illegal migration in the United States stopped about four years ago. Indeed between 2008 and 2009, the net number of illegal migrants entering the United States went negative and the entire population fell from about twelve million to about eleven million. Since 2009, it has more or less been in equilibrium, fluctuating around eleven million people with no trend in either direction."

We have seen all the self-deportations we are likely to see. According to Massey, "As best we can tell from the data, nobody's coming into the United States or very few people are coming into the United States and very few people are leaving the United States. We are at a point of stalemate." (Douglas Massey. Lecture at the Nieman Foundation conference on the Futures of Immigration, Walter Lippman House, Harvard University, September 30, 2011).

President Obama's "attrition through enforcement," (making everyday life so miserable that unauthorized migrants will self-deport), is now creating more problems than it can solve. More on that later.

Today's challenge is managing the legacy of two generations of mass unauthorized migration. The data tell a story more complex than the clichés. By now most unauthorized immigrants have roots in American communities. Nearly half live in households with a spouse and children. The majority of these children -- 79 percent -- are U.S. citizens by birth. The number of U.S. born children in mixed status families has expanded rapidly from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million by the end of the decade. Adding the 1.1 million unauthorized children living in the U.S. means that there are over 5 million children currently living in "mixed-status" homes. In all some 9.5 million people live in "mixed status" families that include American citizen children and unauthorized immigrants. Unauthorized immigrants are not from the other side of the moon.

Nowhere is the story of the immigration more out of synch with the platitudes of the political class than for the millions of children, including citizen children, growing up in the shadows of the law. Rather than fix the problem, current policies are creating new cycles of pathology.

Research shows that children whose parents are detained and or deported under the "attrition through enforcement" campaign exhibit multiple behavioral changes in the aftermath of parental detention, including anxiety, frequent crying, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal, and anger. Such behavioral changes have been documented for both short-term after the arrest as well as in the long-term at a nine-month follow-up. These policies are resulting in significant increases in housing instability and food insecurity -- both important dimensions of basic developmental well-being. These insecurities, while heightened for children whose parents are detained, are ongoing for children growing up in mixed-status households with one or both undocumented parents. Research suggests that unauthorized parents are less likely to take advantage of a range of benefits to which their citizen children are entitled (such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Head Start, the Women, Infants and Children Nutritional Program, Medicaid, and others). Lastly, they have less access to extended social networks that can provide information, babysit, or lend money in a crisis. NYU and Harvard researchers have shown that millions of children are at risk of lower cognitive and educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility and ambiguous belonging because they are growing up in immigrant families affected by illegal status.

Millions of folk, including millions of citizen children, living in the shadows of the law are a tear in the fabric of the nation. It is time to move beyond platitudes and wishful thinking. It is time to close the gap.