Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Illegal immigration is down, so why do we keep talking like it isn't?

A new stretch of border fence, February 2009
A new stretch of border fence, February 2009
Photo by The Pope/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A new Gallup poll shows that nearly two out of every three Americans is "dissatisfied with the level of immigration into the country," and that 42 percent want it to decrease. And yet it already has.

The poll results come a little more than a month after Homeland Security officials announced that the arrests of undocumented immigrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally have dipped to a historic low, a level not seen since the early 1970s.

And while the stats recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol aren't perfect, combined with other research, they point to illegal immigration now being down to a mere trickle. In 2000, the agency apprehended 1.6 million people at the border; only 327,577 were caught in fiscal year 2011.

So what gives? The Gallup poll, the results of which were released yesterday, doesn't distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, but chances are it's the latter that respondents continue to be upset about. From the poll results:

Further, 53% in June 2011 said it was extremely important that the government take steps to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

The poll results show a slight decline in Americans' dissatisfaction with immigration levels in recent years, but the numbers still indicate a different reality. While the results don't delve into what might be happening, here's a good hint from the report of one possibility:
...immigration could become an election issue, because the majority of Republicans and conservatives are dissatisfied and in favor of less immigration. Most independents and Democrats are dissatisfied with the level of immigration and generally tilt toward decreased immigration.

Illegal immigration to the U.S. has been on the wane for years now, the product of hard economic times in the U.S. and tighter enforcement. Yet one might not know it from the ongoing talk of illegal immigration as the 2012 presidential race moves forward, along with ample press coverage of what GOP candidates have had to say about it. Could this be clouding the news from the border? Herman Cain's electrified border fence crack aside, here's what front-runner Mitt Romney said this week during the candidates' debate in South Carolina:
“But to protect our legal immigration system, we have got to protect our borders and stop the flood of illegal immigration,” Romney said.

James Rosen described the phenomenon this way recently in the Miami Herald:
When it comes to illegal immigration, Republican presidential candidates are talking like it's 1999.

Listening to the GOP White House aspirants, voters might not know that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States is down, attempted border crossings are at a 40-year low and President Barack Obama has deported undocumented workers at twice the rate as his predecessor.

In an election year, even with the economy in a shambles, there's nothing new about candidates focusing on illegal immigration as a campaign issue, something that can work for or against them depending on whose votes they need. But it's interesting to see this tradition continuing to the extent it is at a time when the news is pointing in a different direction.

Which message reaching U.S. voters is louder?