- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2016

Donald Trump could get a head start on his promise to deport illegal immigrants if only the government knew how many are even in the U.S.

One of the biggest hurdles to getting anything accomplished on immigration is the lack of basic facts underpinning the debate, including the size of the unauthorized population; the annual flow of people, drugs, guns and cash across the southwest border; and the amount illegal immigrants benefit, or cost, the economy and the government.

“It’s a debate without sound statistics from the government,” said Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “It is shocking that an agency that spends tens of billions of dollars to enforce the law can’t even tell us what the trend is in illegal immigration — is it going up, or is it going down? That’s partly a reflection of bureaucratic problems, but it mostly represents political decisions and no desire to actually know the answer.”

Even those charged with enforcing the law and deporting illegal immigrants aren’t sure how many people they should be looking for. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah R. Saldana testified to Congress that the number could be as high as 15 million, though most private estimates put the figure in the 11 million to 12 million range.

All are shy of Mr. Trump’s top-end estimate of 30 million.

The Department of Homeland Security’s latest estimate of 11.4 million dates back to January 2012, before President Obama’s deportation amnesty policies and before the 2014 surge of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America.

Randy Capps, director of U.S. research at the independent Migration Policy Institute, said the government is running behind in its count but part of it is the shift from data sets.

The American Community Survey provides good data on a rolling two-year basis. Previously, those who calculated the unauthorized population used the less-broad Current Population Survey, which produces annual estimates.

“About a two-year lag is kind of normal now, and that’s about the best anybody can do,” Mr. Capps said.

Filling in the gaps in official government numbers are independent think tanks including Mr. Capps’ organization, Mr. Camarota’s group, the Pew Research Center and the Center for Migration Studies.

Mr. Capps said that what is clear from those researchers’ numbers is that the level of illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped and remained low even as the U.S. economy recovers from the Wall Street-spurred recession. As long as the flow of unauthorized Mexicans remains lower, the country is unlikely to record years with 1 million-plus leaps in illegal immigration.

Mr. Capps’ organization also released detailed profiles of the unauthorized population in the U.S.

It calculated that a majority of illegal immigrants have been in the U.S. for at least a decade and more than 80 percent have avoided major criminal records, which means they qualify for prosecutorial discretion under Mr. Obama’s policies.

Thanks to census data, even more is known about the total immigrant population, including legal immigrants. All told, there are 42.4 million foreign-born in the U.S., or 13.3 percent of the population — nearing the record high reached around the turn of the 20th century.

Demographers can home in on a range of characteristics. A majority of immigrant-led households use at least one welfare program, about half of immigrants have some difficulty speaking English and 46 percent of all immigrants are Hispanic.

Perhaps most striking is the level of education. Pew calculates that more than 40 percent of those who arrived around the dawn of the decade have a bachelor’s degree, compared with about 30 percent of native-born. Another 23 percent of recent arrivals never completed high school, compared with 10 percent of U.S.-born adults.

Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on the gap in its official statistics.

In some respects, the department has improved. It now publicly posts, on a monthly basis, the number of illegal immigrants caught by the Border Patrol in the Southwest, with detailed breakdowns by nationality and category such as unaccompanied minors and families traveling together.

But its deportation statistics have taken a step backward. The department used to post a detailed breakdown every two to three months, but the last one was more than four years ago, dated Aug. 25, 2012.

One of the most striking holes is on border security, where the government has been operating without a yardstick for six years. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ditched the “operational control” measure in 2010 after Congress’ chief watchdog reported that just 44 percent of the border was under control. She promised a replacement by 2012, but no public yardstick is in place four years later.

Department officials say they are fine-tuning internal measures but aren’t ready to make them public.

As for the unauthorized population, the administration was forced to use outside statistics in the recent court battle over Mr. Obama’s 2014 deportation amnesty policy, since Homeland Security’s numbers were out of date.

Among independent researchers, meanwhile, the debate is heating up.

Mr. Camarota calculated in June that illegal immigration ticked back up in 2014 and 2015, with some 550,000 unauthorized migrants in each of those years. That was up from about 350,000 a year in 2012 and 2013.

But Robert Warren at the Center for Migration Studies — the man who used to run statistics for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service — disputed Mr. Camarota’s findings last week. He said there may have been a natural fluctuation in the number of legal immigrants but that the rate of new illegal immigrants is unchanged.

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