Gregory Bull, AP
Migrants from Central America line up to begin the process of returning to their countries with the help of the International Organization of Migration outside a shelter set up for members of the migrant caravan Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, in Tijuana, Mexico.

An analysis that shows a sharp downward trend in unauthorized immigration in the U.S. should hold substantial weight in the current debate over funding for a wall along the Mexico border, as well as ways to address the “caravan” of asylum seekers camped at border crossings. Certainly, a study by the Pew Research Center released Tuesday offers data contradictory to much of the rhetoric from the Trump administration as to the scope and severity of illegal immigration.

We have long been disappointed by the failure of leaders in Washington to proceed with sensible and comprehensive reforms of immigration policies. The Pew research is more evidence of dissonance in the immigration discussion, tainted by a gap between perception and reality.

The fact that illegal entries into the U.S. from Mexico have declined steadily for nine years undermines the urgency to define security as only possible by the building an expensive border wall. And, in the case of the 3,000 or so would-be immigrants who caravanned from Central America to the U.S. border, their numbers are small in comparison to the overall number of annual unauthorized entries — certainly not a number that justifies the administration’s use of the term “invasion.”

Sensible immigration policy should certainly include vigorous and consistent border security. A physical wall may offer appeasing symbolism to anti-immigration hardliners, but there is a lack of strong supporting data that it would serve to eliminate all illegal entry. Policies should also recognize the economic value of immigration by those seeking jobs, as is witnessed in the Pew data specific to Utah.

Here, while unauthorized immigration has also declined in recent years, those who have arrived without proper authorization now constitute a disproportionate percentage of the state’s workforce. The Pew data show that while undocumented immigrants account for 3.2 percent of the state’s population, they make up 4.8 percent of its workforce. It should also be noted that the Pew data show that 65 percent of the unauthorized entrants have now lived in the U.S. for 10 years or more, and that a large percentage have received, or are in the process of obtaining, proper documentation.

Immigration has always been a function of economic motivation. The declining number of illegal entries is explained, at least in part, by improvement in the Mexican economy. With unemployment rates in Utah at historically low levels, many jobs are unfilled, particularly in construction and labor sectors attractive to immigrants seeking stable work. U.S. policy should make it easier for those filling a needed role in the labor market to do so with proper legal authorization, which wouldn’t necessarily constitute a grant of “amnesty” for the infraction of having crossed the border without proper paperwork.

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Aside from economic considerations, policy should also offer a compassionate approach to those trying to come here to escape persecution as well as economic hardship. Those in the caravan who walked for thousands of miles to get to our border deserve to be treated with respect. Recognizing that there are some bad actors in the caravan that need to be weeded out, the U.S. can and should expeditiously handle the petitions for the true asylum seekers.

We maintain that compassion and the rule of law are completely compatible principles. The current political landscape renders it highly unlikely that broad immigration legislation will emanate from Washington in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, it’s important that the country’s attitudes regarding those already here and those wishing to cross the border are influenced more by matters of fact than politically tinged hyperbole.