Liberals and their pro-amnesty allies in the White House always try and frame the debate over illegal immigration as a binary choice: either we grant illegal immigrants already here citizenship or we spend massive resources forcibly deporting them. A study released yesterday by the Center for Immigration Studies provides more evidence that this is a false choice.

Using data from monthly Census surveys as recent as May of this year, and then extrapolating from previous research, the report concluded that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States dropped by as much as 1.3 million in the past year. Other experts in the field were quick to point out that hard data on illegal immigration is nearly impossible to pin down, but most agreed with the general conclusion of the study if not its specifics. “Our data aren’t inconsistent with the idea that people are leaving,” said Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center.

The CIS study attributed the decrease in illegal immigrants to stepped up enforcement measures at the local, state and federal levels. Study author Steven Camarota said: “The evidence is consistent with the idea that at least initially, more robust enforcement caused the number of illegal immigrants to decline significantly. Some people seem to think illegals are so permanently anchored in the United States that there is no possibility of them leaving. … This suggests they’re not correct. Some significant share might respond to changing incentives and leave.”

Camarato’s conclusions are supported by other evidence throughout the country. Forty-seven police departments across the country are receiving immigration enforcement training from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and another 95 departments are waiting to join the program. In 2007, 240 bills related to illegal immigration were enacted in 46 states, triple the number that passed in 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mexico’s central bank reports that the amount of money sent home by Mexican migrants declined 2.2% during the first six months of 2008. And the U.S. Border Patrol reported a 20% decline in apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border during fiscal 2007.

These developments ought to end any plan to address illegal immigration with an amnesty-first strategy. That path was already attempted in the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli legislation and it resulted in a five-fold increase in the number of illegal immigrants in the United States. Low-skilled immigration does not raise wages for those here legally. They are a drain on border county justice systems, and research shows the average low-skill immigrant households imposed a net fiscal burden on state and local government of $8,836 per year.

States ought to keep protecting their bottom lines through enforcement-first measures while the federal government gets its act together. At the federal level, the administration must continue to increase border security and more stringently enforce immigration laws. But Congress must also streamline current visa programs, raise caps and implement measures to reduce visa over-stay rates. The CIS study also found that while the number of illegal immigrants had decreased, the number of legal immigrants had increased from 26.6 million to 27.6 million. Camarota told USA Today: “It doesn’t seem like America is more unpleasant for immigrants. It seems more unpleasant for illegal immigrants.”

Legal immigrants, like those who enter through the H-1B visa program, are a boon to the country. Conservative estimates show that raising the annual cap to 195,000 visas would increase tax revenues by $69 billion between 2008 and 2016. We must change our nation’s immigration laws so that we stop importing poverty and start importing innovation.

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