Immigration Debate addresses an issue that has changed radically

The U.S. Senate has passed a bipartisan bill to reform U.S. immigration policy. The measure is now in the House of Representatives, where it appears to have little chance of passage. House Speaker John Boehner has said he will not put the Senate bill to a vote and will only consider an immigration bill if it has the support of a majority of House Republicans.

This is both a farce and a tragedy, but as it applies to the issue the Senate bill’s critics worry about most it may not matter. Much of the current debate is about a situation that no longer exists.

Broadly speaking, there are two components to any discussion of illegal immigration: how to stem the flood of people illegally entering the United States and what to do about the approximately 11 million people already here without permission. The problem with that debate is that the question of border security – keeping out all the would-be immigrants – largely speaks to a problem from the 1990s. Today, there is no flood.

The July-August edition of The Atlantic sums that up nicely. As it shows, both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico dropped off by more than 80 percent in the last decade. In recent years, more Mexicans have moved back to Mexico than have come to the United States. There has also been an increase in the number of U.S. citizens moving to Mexico.

A number of factors have contributed to these changes, and few of them seem to be temporary.

The recession, in particular the housing slump, drastically reduced the U.S. job market, especially in the housing industry in the Southwest. That market is coming back, but it remains to be seen if it ever returns to the feverish pace of a decade ago.

Other factors are more lasting. As the Atlantic piece points out, Mexico is becoming a middle-class country. Incomes there have been rising since the mid-1990s, and birth rates have been declining.

With that, the country’s median age is rising; it is now up to 28. Not only is crossing the Sonoran desert a young man’s game, but by the time people are in their late 20s or early 30s, they are much more likely to have a family and an established career – and far less likely to be interested in risking their lives for meat-packing jobs.

All that suggests increased enforcement efforts along the border will produce little in the way of demonstrable results. It is hard to stop something that is not happening. But focusing on border security remains the mantra of House Republicans opposed to the Senate’s immigration bill.

That in opposing immigration reform they risk going the way of the Whigs seems not to matter to them. Most fear a primary challenge more than anything.

But with that, they ignore the 11 million people already here illegally. The Senate bill includes a pathway to citizenship for those folks, albeit an arduous one that requires payment of a fine, a 13-year wait and a background check.

Critics nonetheless invoke the idea of moral hazard. They argue that any path to citizenship rewards lawbreaking.

But such thinking ignores the simple reality that this country is not about to round up 11 million people and ship them off. Paranoia on both the left and right notwithstanding, this is neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia. Recognizing that, critics of the Senate bill should explain exactly what it is they want. If not a path to citizenship, what?

The House should pass the Senate’s immigration bill. With actual immigration waning, citizenship is the issue.