As Trump Screamed About the Border in 2016, Unauthorized Immigration Was Dropping

Mexicans are by no means pouring over the southern U.S. border. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

There has never been much of an empirical basis underlying Donald Trump’s crusade against immigrants. Racism and xenophobia are like that: statistics may be deployed to support prejudice, but they are as disposable as Christian morality to the bigoted.

It’s not a big shock, then, to find that Pew Hispanic Center has plowed through the latest (2016) U.S. government data only to find that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country dropped significantly during the previous decade. And some of the largest drops were among unauthorized immigrants from Mexico.

The number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. fell to its lowest level in more than a decade, according to new Pew Research Center estimates based on 2016 government data. The decline is due almost entirely to a sharp decrease in the number of Mexicans entering the country without authorization …

Overall, between 2007 and 2016, the unauthorized immigrant population shrank by 13 percent. By contrast, the lawful immigrant population grew 22 percent during the same period, an increase of more than 6 million people. 

The declining overall number of unauthorized immigrants is due mainly to a very large drop in the number of new unauthorized immigrants, especially Mexicans, coming into the country. Consequently, today’s unauthorized immigrant population includes a smaller share of recent arrivals, especially from Mexico, than a decade earlier. Increasingly unauthorized immigrants are likely to be long-term U.S. residents: Two-thirds of adult unauthorized immigrants have lived in the country for more than 10 years.

So we really need to modify our idea of the immigrant population to understand that unauthorized entries across the border are dropping and the number of immigrants is stabilizing. And even within the unauthorized population, a rising percentage of entries are legal:

Among unauthorized immigrants in the Center’s estimates who arrived in the previous five years, the share who are likely to be people who overstayed their visas probably grew substantially between 2007 and 2016 — to the point where they probably constituted most of the recent unauthorized immigrant arrivals in 2016.

Not much a border wall can do about that problem.

Yes, there has been an uptick in unauthorized entries from Central America (though less than the downtick in those from Mexico itself). And as the Trump administration winds down the Temporary Protected Status program for Salvadorians, Hondurans, and Haitians threatened by violence or natural disasters, the number of “illegals” will artificially go up.

All in all, the projection of an immigration crisis on which the Trump campaign in 2016 so heavily relied was based on fanning largely unrealistic fears about a situation that was actually improving. If it continues to improve, the administration will probably be torn between taking credit and continuing to batten on prejudice. Just ignoring the evidence and going with the president’s harsh assertions will always be an option.

Unauthorized Immigration Down in Decade Before Trump Arrived