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A Better Border Policy (can it get much worse?)

author Published by Jeremy Beck

FY2023 was the worst year for illegal immigration encounters on record.

There are two ways to think about illegal immigration numbers: 1) the number trying to enter illegally; and 2) the number entering illegally. The best metric to gauge the former is the “encounter“. August 2023 encounters were the highest in history at over 300,000; the September numbers are expected to be even worse when they are made public.

To measure the number of people who enter illegally, you have to add up catch-and-release numbers and so-called “gotaways”. The precise numbers are either not known or not made public by the government, but since January, 2021, an estimated 4 million people – roughly the population of the city of Los Angeles – have bypassed the legal immigration system established by Congress.

To get the full sense of illegal immigration’s impact on the interior, you then have to add in visa overstays (which hit a record high in 2022). That gives you an estimated 5.7 million – or roughly the combined populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas – since 2021.

Cities Under Strain

The federal government hasn’t made all of the relevant data public, but – using analysis of a group of 2,500 migrants who are tracked due to a federal court ruling – we can get a good idea of which U.S. cities are most impacted.

Better immigration is possible.

It shouldn’t be hard to do better than “worst in history.” The only obstacle to securing a better policy is political will.

H.R. 2 passed the House in the Spring. The bill includes reforms that have had bipartisan support in the past including closing loopholes and mandating E-Verify. The Senate should pass the bill and send it to the White House for the president’s signature.

In absence of these necessary reforms, the crisis will continue to be felt on both sides of the border.

Child labor straight out of another century.

Hannah Dreier tells the story of Marcos, who came to the U.S. at 13 years old; one of 300,000 minors who entered the U.S. illegally on their own since 2021 (another “worst”).“Most have ended up working full time, Dreier reports, “fueling a resurgence in child labor not seen in a century, with children living far from their parents and working illegally in all 50 states.”

Marcos was sent to the U.S. by his parents, who knew that he would be released (due to a loophole that H.R. 2 would close). They paid a human smuggler to get him to the border. Like many minors, Marcos was released to someone who was not his parent. He was lucky he didn’t have to pay his sponsor rent, as many child migrants do.
Marcos got a job at a slaughterhouse using a fake ID because the company didn’t use E-Verify (which H.R. 2 would require) to pay off the human smuggler and send money to his parents and family back home. He wasn’t alone. One out of three workers in the overnight crew were illegal child laborers, according to The New York Times. He came to the attention of Dreier after nearly losing his arm in a workplace accident.

Dreier’s colleague, David Leonhardt, sums up the situation:

Middle class jobs no more

“It’s no accident that the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the famous novel depicting the dangerous and despicable working conditions of meatpacking plants around the turn of the century, was a recent arrival from Lithuania,” writes my colleague Andre Barnes.

The meatpacking industry Marcos worked and was maimed in has a history of using exploitable immigrant labor to keep labor costs low. The Great Wave of immigration in the late 19th century drove recently-emancipated Black Americans out of the industry where they had gained a tenuous hold. When Congress responded to the calls of civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph to moderate immigration, the meatpacking industry became a vehicle for the Great Leveling and the rise of the middle class.
Americans – including recent immigrants – enjoyed increased wealth, but no group benefited more than Black Americans. The United Packinghouse Workers of America bucked the anti-Black bias of unions to that point by ensuring that Black members could move into higher-paying positions within the industry.

The following excerpt from Back of the Hiring Line tells the next part of the story:

A 2010 briefing from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that illegal immigration had significant negative wage effects on Black workers in the meatpacking industry.
“Reducing immigration is not a cure-all for the plights of Black Americans,” Andre writes. “But it’s an immediate, tangible action that Congress could take.”

The new passport: a child

In another snapshot that illustrates the crisis and those it puts in harm’s way: detention centers are now full after being underutilized for most of the year, but all of the detainees are single men. Groups traveling with children have been released as a matter of policy since 2021. As a result, the number of family units crossing illegally has also reached an all-time high. All other efforts to dissuade unaccompanied minors and family units from risking illegal immigration have failed in light of the reality that arriving as a child or with a child has become a passport into the United States (a loophole that H.R. 2 would close).


“We are one of the most diverse places on earth because of our welcoming nature and it’s in our DNA to welcome immigrants, but there has to be some limits in place.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul

“I guarantee if this thing is held or hidden, it’s because they know that if you give the city residents the ability to vote on this, the numbers would be widely in favor of not being a sanctuary city. We are not built for this.”
Chicago Alderman Anthony Napolitano on his resolution with Ald. Anthony Beale to put Chicago’s sanctuary policy on the ballot.

“We had to make tough choices in this budget.”
NYC Mayor Eric Adams, announcing the largest budget cuts in the city’s history to help support released migrants who have settled in New York City.

”We just added 500 more people to a community that’s already falling apart.”
Jennifer Shannon, founder of a neighborhood association in working-class neighborhood in Queens that supports food pantries.

“Let me state this clearly: The city of Chicago cannot go on welcoming new arrivals safely and capably without significant support and immigration policy changes.”ChicagoMayor Brandon Johnson

“When is enough enough? You’ve got to be able to control your borders and be able to handle the number of people that come in. You just can’t open up the faucet and let everybody in.” Rep. Henry Cuellar (TX-28)

“Who gets hurt by open borders? U.S. Latinos, Black, brown and white. They lose jobs because of shadow economy wages often found in immigrant-heavy industries such as farming, meat packing and construction. That’s why E-Verify remains a must-have national policy.”
Manuel A. Rosales, an immigrant from Nicaragua

“I think the company must get something out of bringing in immigrants. They put a lot of effort in recruiting.”Robert, a meatpacking worker on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, speaking to NumbersUSA’s founder in the 1990s

“The rebalancing of the labor market has continued over the past year but remains incomplete. Labor supply has improved, driven by stronger participation among workers aged 25 to 54 and by an increase in immigration back toward pre-pandemic levels….This rebalancing has eased wage pressures.”Jerome H. Powell, Chair of the Federal Reserve

“The first person to really embrace mandatory E-Verify and make it a centerpiece of his or her campaign might just find gold at the end of the political rainbow.”Henry Olsen, columnist

“Sadly, the very people who are willing to risk their lives on the arduous trek from the Sahel to Europe are often the very same brave and ambitious people their home countries need.” James H. McGee, retired national security and counter-terrorism professional

“Democrats and Republicans must recommit themselves to stopping illegal immigration and reducing annual immigration to reasonable levels. The party that supports sensible immigration reform will win the battle for American workers.”
James Massa, CEO of NumbersUSA.

JEREMY BECK is a V.P., Deputy Director for NumbersUSA

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