Misconceptions Behind the Immigrant Scare | Harper's Magazine

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Misconceptions Behind the Immigrant Scare


America, we are told by breathless voices on the political right, faces a horrible crisis from illegal immigrants, particularly from Mexico. These histrionics recently helped drive Arizona legislators and Governor Jan Brewer to enact SB 1070, under which the state’s law enforcement officers are authorized to stop anyone they suspect of being “foreign” and demand to see their documentation. But how sound are the premises of the fear campaign that drives this movement? As the New York Times reports, a major independent study shows that the actual number of illegal immigrants in America is declining, sharply:

The number of illegal immigrants in the United States, after peaking at 12 million in 2007, fell to about 11.1 million in 2009, the first clear decline in two decades, according to a report published Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center. The reduction came primarily from decreases among illegal immigrants from Latin American countries other than Mexico, the report found. The number of Mexicans living in the United States without legal immigration status did not change significantly from 2007 to 2009. Some seven million Mexicans make up about 60 percent of all illegal immigrants, still by far the largest national group, the Pew Center said.

The report is based on census data from March 2009, the most recent census sample that is detailed enough for Pew demographers to estimate the statistically elusive population of illegal immigrants. The figures show that more than a year of recession in the American economy, coupled with intensifying immigration enforcement at the Southwest border and in workplaces around the country, brought a reduction of at least 900,000 illegal immigrants.

This decline does not mean that there is no problem, of course, and it’s perfectly reasonable to view 11.1 million as an unacceptable number. But the trend is extremely important, and the exact causes should be studied: how much of the decline is attributable to a deteriorating job market in the United States, and how much to more aggressive immigration control measures, introduced in the last Bush year and accelerated under Obama?

Back in Arizona, which remains the epicenter for this issue, a new controversy has erupted. A dogged investigation by a television news reporter in Phoenix revealed that two senior advisors to Governor Jan Brewer also represent the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. Brewer, who has a double-digit lead in current polls, refused to answer questions about whether they advised her on SB 1070, and she also retaliated against the investigation, pulling her campaign advertising from the Phoenix station in question. There is no evidence of CCA actually lobbying for SB 1070, and the company denies that it has any benefit from the bill–but critics note that in fact persons arrested by Arizona law enforcement stand a good chance of landing in a CCA prison, and CCA profits from every visit. In a feature in Time, Adam Zagorin previously documented the amazingly symbiotic relationship between CCA and Republican politicians. Rachel Maddow reports on the new story out of Phoenix:

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