Our policy ... and our real policy
Our de facto national policy has been to tolerate illegal immigration. There are been very few sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants, or landlords, or merchants who sell to illegal immigrants. Schools are required to teach children who are illegal immigrants, and hospitals are required to treat them. Considering this, it's not surprising that illegal immigrants numbers have grown in the country.
The lure is pretty clearly jobs and a better life in the US. Wages are lower in Latin America; crime and corruption are higher. Of course the US will be a magnet. Yet we haven't changed our policies to counteract those forces that draw immigrants here. Why not? Well, just take a look at who benefits from illegal immigration.
Pros and Cons
Different groups have different reasons for supporting illegal immigration. Humanitarian groups see the conditions the immigrants are fleeing, and they are sympathetic to their plight. I'm pretty sure this is reasonable, up to a point. Businesses like hard workers who can't or won't demand higher pay--it's good for their profit margins. This is less defensible. However, if your competition is hiring illegal immigrants and paying less, you may have to do the same or shutter your business. Businesses also benefit from a larger consumer base, and they won't complain about that. Democrats like illegal immigrants because supporters/allies of illegal immigrants also generally support of most of the Democratic agenda--social spending, cultural diversity, . . . and voting Democratic, naturally.
Actually, it sounds like everyone should like illegal immigration. I must have neglected the downside. Let's see . . . it costs extra to educate them, provide medical care, jail them, enforce laws, etc. They are stiff competition for desirable jobs. Some people dislike that they are Latino (or Asian or black) rather than European stock like the majority of the country, but I strongly disagree with that as a valid reason.
So with a bunch reasons to support illegal immigration and also a bunch of reasons to be against it, it's no wonder that we haven't controlled the level of illegal immigration that well.
The Unspoken Reason for Allowing Illegal Immigration
I think I forgot to mention another major reason to support illegal immigration: it helps prevent wage and price inflation. For some economists and a bunch of politicians, that is a major reason to tacitly support it. Inflation is quite the bogeyman, but if you can prevent it, you can have all sorts of wonderful growth numbers that make you look like a shining success. You can have growth in housing (built for less using illegal immigrant labor), growth in jobs, growth in GDP, growth in tax revenue--all these good things without the growth in costs. You don't have to give the economy a dose of that nasty anti-inflation medicine of raising interest rates to prevent overheating.
Yes, this is the biggest reason that we haven't exercised control over the level of illegal immigration. It's because the economy as a whole benefited in the short term. It's too bad that it was actually a bubble, and had to pop sometime. Now, we have over 11 million illegal immigrants, most of whom are working, are integrated into our economy and communities, and many of whom have American-born or naturalized family members. How are we going to disentangle this situation?
I don't see a good solution. Much of the GOP (except for the businesses that benefit and the economists who like very low inflation) don't really have a solution to offer. Some GOP-led states have tried to make employment and renting difficult for illegal immigrants, forcing them to move to other states or go back to their home countries. (I wonder how they go home. Do they have passports in order to board planes and cross borders? I don't know.)
I don't think that this squeezing has actually worked, though it seems like it should. There is certainly a lot of resistance to these tactics. It's not a humanitarian course--making life so inhospitable that people give up and go home even though the home country is a wreck. You've not only angered the illegal immigrants, you've also angered all their supporters. And, those state laws have been mired in the courts, so they haven't had a noticeable effect.
The GOP also says that it wants much tighter border security. I've read that the border is so wide open that anyone can cross. I doubt this, but I'm not close to any border, so I don't know if it's true or not. Border security sounds reasonable, but it's limited in its effectiveness. Many illegal immigrants come to the US in legal ways--on visitor or student visas, and then stay on. Border security isn't going to do anything about that. I seriously wonder how much improvement can be made. Should we erect walls like Israel has? We haven't even started the discussion and assessment to make a cost-conscious decision on this.
I don't hear the GOP talking as much about putting the screws on employers so they won't hire illegal immigrants. This should be part of their proposal, except that it antagonizes businesses, who are necessary GOP allies. That's yet another case of political necessity trumping principle.
The Democratic proposals are even weaker. Most Democrats want amnesty for illegal immigrants and a path to citizenship (and voting for Dems in elections). They don't say much about preventing further illegal immigration.
I don't have a good proposal myself. I lean towards deportation, but that may be economically disruptive and it's a humanitarian nightmare. Is there a way to legalize the good illegal immigrants, send the marginal ones back, and then cut off the flow in the future? That's what I'd like, but I don't know how to accomplish that. So I'd appoint a bipartisan commission, have them study the issues and make recommendations. And unlike other times with other commissions, I'd actually listen very carefully to what they recommend. That's how I'd handle this hot potato--give it to people who are smarter than me.
Do you want to know what's the most ironic thing here? Both sides say they want 'comprehensive immigration reform.' HAHAHAHAHA. Yeah, right. That's why we've had so much progress in the last 28 years.
Extras and sources. Watered down employer sanctions and other problems in the 1986 reform. Texas is still not ready to hold employers accountable. Anti-immigrant site with its take. Does the announcement on immigration fall under the mantle of legitimate discretion? It's not lawless, according to a conservative legal scholar. What can the GOP actually do about Obama's plan? A history of the recent promises of immigration reform.