The problem with US immigration law is that it was not written to deal with the reality of 12 million undocumented people living within the US. You might conceptualize it as 4% of the entire US population, or as one out of every twenty-five US residents, or as the equivalent of the population of Illinois.
In any case, it’s a whole lotta people, and American laws can neither normalize them, nor facilitate their removal. For the latter, one should be thankful. The SS was only able to round up 6 million people across Continental Europe. Whatever police power the US would require to remove double that number from within its own borders – it’s not a creature that Americans would want to create, much less live beside.
Not to worry though – present immigration enforcement personnel are no where near the size they’d need to be to even make a dent. Consider that New York City has 40,000 police officers serving 8 million people in a 300 square mile area. By comparison, the United States has 5,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to deal with 12 million undocumented aliens living among 300 million other people in a 3,800,000 square mile area. The US Border Patrol has another 21,000 officers, patrolling a 5,500 mile border with Canada and a 2,000 mile border with Mexico. Given that the Border Patrol operates up to 100 miles inland from borders, you have 21,000 officers for an area the size of Nebraska containing 200 million people.
The problem isnt simply in the math. In practice, no country subject to a bill of rights, with hard and fast limits on the power and intrusiveness of the police, could find, hold, try and deport 12 million people. This is why amnesty will be central to any future law that meaningfully deals with America’s immigration reality – not because amnesty is just or fair, but because nothing else is practical.
Which leads us to a matter worth mentioning, if only in passing: the drubbing of Eric Cantor. Many say he was simply outflanked on the right by the tea party in traditional fashion – that his pro-immigration-reform stance was interpreted as too pro-business. Paul Krugman theorized that the GOP bait ‘n switch has broken down: that candidates running on social issues – abortion, guns, the death penalty – will now be taken to task for pro-business policies elsewhere. A more parsimonious explanation is that Cantor is simply a lousy politician. He is, after all, absurdly conservative – a major player in the manufactured debt ceiling crisis, which was extremely popular among arch-conservatives – Cantor failed to communicate his role in it. Even his position on immigration is extreme – allowing a path to citizenship only for people who were brought to the US as minors.
The central teaching of Cantor’s defeat is really a very old lesson, but one worth retreading: GOP voters and politicians are utterly divorced from reality. The US Congress can no more change the color of the sky via legislation than they can resolve our immigration difficulties without relying heavily on amnesty.