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Heather Mac Donald
Illegal Immigration Myths
Cutting through the baloney on what to do about illegals
1 May 2006

As the nation braced for another demonstration of illegal alien power today, the press has been trotting out “fear engulfs the illegal alien community” stories, following the arrests last month of over 1,000 illegal aliens working for IFCO Systems North America. For instance: IMMIGRANTS PANICKED BY RUMORS OF RAIDS, reported the New York Times; ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS FEAR ROUNDUP, announced the Wall Street Journal; TALK OF IMMIGRANT ARRESTS IN AUSTIN FUELS FEAR, blared the Austin American-Statesman; and PATIENTS, FEARING INS RAIDS, DON’T SEEK HEALTH CARE, the Contra Costa Times warned.

And what exactly is wrong with that? The premise of all such stories is that the government has acted unconscionably in causing illegal aliens to fear deportation, however remote the risk. Worrying about deportation is a cruel burden that no illegal alien should have to live with, the reporters imply—and their sources state outright. “It doesn’t help society or anyone to have these people running scared,” Mexican consul general Jorge Guajardo told the Austin American-Statesman. The stories sympathetically reported on illegal aliens too nervous to attend karate class, shop, get their free medical examinations, or pick up their subsidized prescription drugs. Somewhat braver illegals go out only to pick up their children from taxpayer-subsidized school or Head Start programs.

After Border Patrol agents arrested a few hundred illegal aliens in southern California cities in 2004, the Los Angeles Times ran similar stories bemoaning the resultant fear among illegal aliens and quoting advocates and politicians blasting the Border Patrol’s outrageous behavior.

This ubiquitous journalistic conceit exposes two myths and raises a public policy question. The first myth is that illegal aliens live in the shadows. The “shadows” claim then becomes an urgent reason why Congress must pass a legalization plan: so that 11 million people can come out of hiding. In fact, illegal aliens live in the full blaze of day. Only when confronted with the merest hint that immigration enforcement is even possible do they curtail their movements—and then elite thinking immediately declares such curtailment a gross injustice.

But even if it were true that illegals lived in the shadows, why is that unfair? The bargain they chose was clear: if you come here illegally, the law says that you should face deportation. It is a measure of how surreal our immigration practice has become that it is now “mean-spirited” simply to raise the possibility in an illegal’s mind that his deportation risk is real, much less actually to deport him.

The second myth is that the only way to reduce the illegal alien population is through “mass deportations”—assumed by the enlightened to be patently cruel. The fear stories make clear, however, that the illegal alien population has burgeoned precisely because illegals assume that they face no risk of enforcement. As soon as there is any move toward upholding the law, calculations change. Were enforcement actions to continue, the calculations made by illegals already here and those planning to come would change even more radically: many illegals would go home and many fewer would enter. As Jessica Vaughan points out in a recent report for the Center for Immigration Studies, after the Department of Homeland Security deported 1,500 illegal Pakistanis after 9/11, 15,000 more illegal Pakistanis left the country on their own. We have no reason to believe that illegal Hispanics and other populations would not follow a similar course.

For this voluntary flight to happen, however, the threat of enforcement must be credible. Perversely, the federal government makes sure that the opposite is the case. As soon as “illegal alien fear” stories appear, immigration policy-makers repudiate any intention of more widespread legal action and reassure illegal aliens that they have no reason to worry. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Virginia Tice told the Wall Street Journal last week that rumors of arrests of illegal aliens were “baseless. We don’t conduct random raids.”

Many immigration officials even fear the “d” word. A CNN reporter called me last year for a comment on whether an illegal Chinese man, trapped in an elevator in New York for several days, should be deported. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman had referred the reporter to me, because he was unwilling to offer any opinion himself on whether deportation was in order.

When the Denver Post, in 2002, took up the cause of Jesus Apodaca, an illegal alien in Denver denied in-state tuition to the University of Colorado, Congressman Tom Tancredo was the only public official who suggested that deportation might be more appropriate. ICE stayed mum.

And that leads to a key question, usually ducked: What does the country want regarding deportation? If an official from the agency responsible for protecting our borders is unwilling to call for the removal of a single illegal alien once the illegal has a face and a name, where does that leave us? Right-wing talk radio hosts and their audiences complain about border-breaking and informal legalization measures like driver’s licenses and matricula consular cards. But they usually avoid the next question: if not legalization, then, what? If ICE were to start upholding the immigration law and regularly removing illegals, the press would go into overdrive, painting each removal action as a heart-wrenching injustice.

It is a calculated falsehood by the open borders lobby that mass “round-ups” are the only way to stop the invasion of illegals. But it is true that consistent enforcement actions will be necessary to broadcast that our national sanctuary policy has come to an end. Some polls suggest that the public would support such actions, and virtually all polls show that the American people certainly have a far stricter stance toward illegals than do the press and the political class—something to keep in mind before we devise our next feckless immigration bill.

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More by Heather Mac Donald:
Steven Banks, Reporting for Duty
De Blasio’s Policing Test
No Managers Need Apply
More . . .
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