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Confronting the Problem of Illegal Mexican Migration to the U.S.
by Daniel T. Griswold



AMERICA'S immigration laws are colliding with reality, and reality is winning. Today, approximately 8,000,000 people live in the U.S. without legal documents, and each year the number grows by an estimated 250,000 as more enter illegally or overstay their visas. Over hall of the illegal immigrants entering and already here come from Mexico.


In February. 2001, Pres. George W. Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, agreed at a conference in Guanajuato, Mexico. to work together to fix the problem. Then, on Sept. 7, 2001, after meeting for three days in Washington, Bush and Fox "renewed their commitment to forging new and realistic approaches to migration to ensure it is safe, orderly, legal, and dignified." They endorsed an immigration policy that includes "matching willing workers with willing employers; serving the social and economic needs of both countries; respecting the human dignity of all migrants, regardless of their status; recognizing the contribution migrants make to enriching both societies; [and] shared responsibility for ensuring migration takes place through safe and legal channels." However, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon four days later knocked those plans off the burner entirely. Now, more than a year after those events, the underlying reality of migration that brought the two presidents together remains fundamentally unchanged and must be addressed.


Immigration is the most-conspicuous piece of unfinished business between the U.S. and Mexico. On almost every other front, U.S.-Mexican relations have made dramatic progress in recent years, but a glaring exception to the trend is immigration policy. While the U.S. government has encouraged closer trade, investment, and political ties with Mexico, it has labored in vain to keep a lid on the flow of labor across the border. Since the mid 1980s, in its effort to stop illegal immigration, Washington has imposed new and burdensome regulations on American employers and dramatically increased spending on border control. Despite those aggressive efforts, America's border policy has failed to achieve its principal objective--to stem the flow of undocumented workers into the U.S. labor market.


The U.S. and Mexico share a 2,000-mile land border, by far the longest in the world between an industrialized and less-developed country. By the early 1980s, the perception became widespread that America was being flooded with illegal immigrants from Mexico. In 1986, Congress passed the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which contained three major provisions aimed at regaining "control of our borders." To dampen demand for undocumented labor, it required U.S. companies to check documentation of all prospective employees and, for the first time in American history, authorized fines against firms that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. To cut off the supply of unauthorized workers, it increased spending on the Border Patrol. Moreover, to address the issue of the millions of illegal aliens already in the U.S., it granted permanent legal status, or "amnesty," to 2,800,000 unauthorized immigrants who had been in the country continuously since Jan. 1, 1982.


After initial declines, the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. began to rise again by the early 1990s. Soon after taking office in 1993, the Clinton Administration tried to stem the rising tide through enhanced border enforcement in a policy it dubbed "prevention through deterrence." The policy focused on the major entry points along the U.S.-Mexican border: San Diego, Calif.; El Paso and Laredo, Tex.; and Nogales, Ariz. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act further ramped up resources for border control, including funds for additional layers of fencing in San Diego, and imposed tougher penalties on smugglers, undocumented workers, and those who overstay their visas. From 1986 to 1998, the amount of tax dollars that Congress appropriated for the Immigration and Naturalization Service increased eightfold and for the Border Patrol sixfold. The number of Border Patrol agents assigned to the southwestern border doubled to 8,500.


By any real measure of results, the effort since 1986 to constrict illegal immigration has failed. The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has doubled since then, from an estimated 4,000,000 to 8,000,000. The length of the U.S.-Mexican border and the volume of legal border crossings virtually guarantee that current American border control policy will fail. Moreover, Washington's expensive and coercive efforts to curb Mexican migration have caused a number of perverse and unintended consequences.


Why Mexicans migrate north


To understand why U.S. border policy has failed, we must first understand why Mexican workers migrate despite the American government's expensive campaign to keep them out. Most Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. do not come intending to settle permanently. They come to solve temporary problems of family finance--by saving dollars and sending them back home in the form of remittances. Their goal is to rejoin their families and communities after a few months or years as sojourners in the American labor market. From the end of the Bracero program in 1964 until the passage of the IRCA in 1986--a period during which Mexicans were practically, if not legally, free to cross the border and work--the flow of labor was largely circular. During that period, Douglas Massey of the University of Pennsylvania estimates that 28,000,000 Mexicans entered the U.S. and 23,400,000 eventually returned to Mexico, for a net immigration total of 4,600,000. In other words, when free to enter and work in the U.S., more than 80% of Mexican migrants still chose eventually to return to their homeland. "Given the relatively porous border" during that period, Massey concludes, "migrants knew that they could return to the United States for additional labor whenever the need arose, thus encouraging a pattern of circular rather than settled migration."


Immigration is ultimately driven by demand for labor in the U.S. market. Mexicans migrate to the U.S. not simply because wages are higher, but because Americans want to hire them. Drawing on their social capital, migrants commonly enter the U.S. labor market after learning that specific jobs are available in specific locations. For a Mexican worker, being unemployed or underemployed is far more expensive in the U.S. than back in Mexico. If jobs are not available for migrants in the U.S., a journey north of the border will be far less attractive no matter what the wage differential. If jobs are available, current American border policy will not keep them out.


While it has failed to stop the flow of workers, Washington's campaign against economic migration from Mexico has spawned an underworld of smuggling, document fraud, and other criminal activity. To make the difficult crossing through unfamiliar territory, migrants have been forced to hire the services of smuggling networks or individual guides known as "coyotes." As a direct consequence of the government's "prevention through deterrence" campaign, the share of illegal immigrants who use smugglers to enter from Mexico increased from 70% in the early 1990s to nearly 90% by the end of the decade. Fees that coyotes charge also increased during that period, from an estimated average of $500 to $1,000 or more. To circumvent employer sanctions in the U.S., undocumented migrants are supplied with false documents by a well-developed underground cottage industry.


Once in the U.S., illegal Mexican workers must remain longer to pay the higher price of crossing the border, and they are reluctant to repeat the increasingly expensive and dangerous trip more often than necessary. Yet, the cost of crossing the border continues to be low enough that hundreds of thousands of Mexicans succeed in entering the U.S. illegally each year. Those who do are staying longer and adding to the stock of Mexican migrants already in the country. Before passage of the IRCA in 1986, the median stay in the U.S. of undocumented migrants from Mexico was 2.6 years; by 1998, after the border crackdown of the Clinton years, the median stay had risen to 6.6 years. The border policy aimed at reducing illegal immigration to the U.S. has perversely encouraged illegal immigrants to stay.


Another consequence of the suppression policy has been to divert migration flows from a few traditional urban crossing points to more-scattered rural areas--to the frustration of rural residents and the peril of migrants. Up until the mid 1980s, the large majority of Mexican migrants entered the U.S. via three narrow, urban gates--San Diego, Nogales, and El Paso and Laredo, Tex. In response to enhanced border enforcement in those cities, migration patterns shifted to remote rural areas such as the Arizona-Mexico border, where patrols are more scattered, but conditions are also more dangerous. The diverted flow has caused headaches for Americans living in those areas as migrants have trespassed on private property, disturbed livestock, and destroyed property. The remote topography and hostile desert climate have resulted in the deaths of thousands of migrants since the crackdown began. In 2001, 336 migrants were found dead along the border from dehydration and other causes, down slightly from 377 deaths in 2000, but up sharply from the death toll in earlier years.


Employer sanctions have artificially depressed wages of undocumented workers by reducing their bargaining power and complicating the task of hiring them. Sanctions have increased the paperwork for businesses and encouraged hiring through subcontractors and off-the-books cash payments. A Labor Department study on the effect of employer sanctions contained in the 1986 IRCA bill concluded that "employer sanctions are viewed as a tax on the employment of unauthorized workers and are incorporated directly into the labor demand schedule of the firms. As a result, the direct effect of employer sanctions is to lower wages."


The migration of Mexican workers to the U.S. is a rational and mutually beneficial response to underlying economic needs on both sides of the border. Immigration--like the international flow of goods, services, and capital--typically benefits most people in both the sending and receiving countries.


Immigration aides the U.S. economy by providing workers to fill gaps in the labor market. Immigrants tend to fill occupations where the gap between the supply of workers and the demand for them is greatest, typically in the highest- and lowest-skilled jobs. That hourglass shape of the immigration labor pool complements the native workforce, where a much larger share of workers falls in the middle range in terms of skills and education. As a result, immigrants do not typically compete for the kinds of jobs held by the vast majority of American workers. Instead, they migrate to those segments of the job market where most Americans are over- or underqualified.


America's recent history confirms that its economy can prosper during times of robust immigration. During the long boom of the 1990s, and especially in the second half of the decade, the national unemployment rate fell below four percent and real wages rose both up and down the income scale during a time of high immigration levels. According to a study by the Council of Economic Advisers, household incomes rose strongly from 1993 through 1999 across all income groups, including the poorest one-fifth of American households. The poverty rate fell by three percent during the 1990s, and almost 10% among African-Americans. Those remarkable gains occurred during a decade of large immigration inflows, including low-skilled workers from Mexico.


Benefits for the U.S.


Low-skilled immigrants, a category that describes most migrants from Mexico, benefit the U.S. economy by filling jobs for which the large majority of American workers are overqualified and that they are unwilling to take. Important sectors of the U.S. economy have turned to low-skilled immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, to cover persistent job vacancies. Hotels and motels, restaurants, construction, manufacturing, health care, retailing, and other services are major employers of low-skilled immigrant labor. Of the roughly 5,000,000 undocumented workers in the American labor force, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 1,000,000 are employed in manufacturing; 600,000 in construction; 700,000 in restaurants; and 1,000,000 to 1,400,000 in agriculture. More than half (58%) of those workers are from Mexico.


The demand for less-skilled labor will continue to rise in the years ahead. According to the Department of Labor, while the fastest-growing occupations in the next decade in percentage terms will require high degrees of skill and education, the largest growth in absolute numbers will be in those categories that require only "short-term-on-the-job training" of one month or less. In fact, of the top-30 categories with the largest expected job growth between 2000 and 2010, more than half fall into that least-skilled category. Those include combined food preparation and servicing workers; waiters and waitresses; retail salespersons; cashiers; security guards; nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants; janitors and cleaners; home health aides; manual laborers and freight, stock, and materials movers; landscaping and groundskeeping workers; and manual packers and packagers--all occupations where low-skilled immigrants from Mexico can be expected to help meet the rising demand. Across the American economy, the Labor Department estimates that the total number of jobs requiring only short-term training will increase from 53,200,000 in 2000 to 60,900,000 by 2010, a net increase of 7,700,000 jobs.


Meanwhile, the supply of American workers suitable for such work is falling because of an aging workforce and rising education levels. The median age of American workers continues to increase as the large cohort of baby boomers approaches retirement age. From 1990 to 2010, the median age of U.S. workers is expected to increase from 36.6 to 40.6. Younger and older workers alike are now more educated as the share of adult native-born men without a high school diploma has plunged--from 53.6% in 1960 to nine percent in 1998, for example. During that same period, the share with college degrees went up from 11.4% to 29.8%. With the number of low-skilled jobs expected to grow by more than 700,000 a year, and a shrinking pool of Americans willing to fill those jobs, Mexican migrants provide a ready and willing source of labor to fill the growing gap between demand and supply on the lower rungs of the labor ladder.


Legalization of undocumented workers would restore the normal incentive for them to upgrade their skills and increase their bargaining power with employers. As evidence, a 1995 Labor Department study found that undocumented workers who were legalized in the 1980s as part of the IRCA "amnesty" provisions responded by investing in their skills and education. "For many, legalization appears to have been a turning point. Suddenly, there was a surge of investment in language skills, education, and training," the study found. Specifically, 43% of Mexican men undertook some skill-enhancement training following legalization, "more than a doubling of the previous rate of human-capital accumulation for most origin groups."


Another beneficial consequence was an increase in wages paid to newly legalized workers. The same study found that real wages paid to undocumented workers were flat for most of the decade until 1987-88, but then rose 15% in the five years following legalization. Legalization put previously undocumented workers on an equal footing with documented ones, allowing them to withhold their labor more credibly or consider other job offers instead of forcing them to accept what a limited group of employers were offering. Legalization eliminated the need for off-the-books payments, middlemen, and other subterfuges that had acted as a tax on their labor.


A final benefit of legalized immigration would be the almost certain reduction of illegal immigration. If a wide enough channel were opened so that the supply of workers from Mexico could be legally matched with the demand for their labor in the U.S., the rationale for the current illegal flow of Mexican migrants would vanish. Why would Mexican workers bear the cost and risk of sneaking across the border, and then pay a tax on their wages and working conditions for their undocumented status, when they could instead enter the country and work legally?


The experience of the Bracero program demonstrates that workers prefer the legal channel. Faced with large-scale illegal immigration in the early 1950s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service more than doubled the number of Bracero visas, enough to meet growing demand, especially in the agricultural sector. As a result, illegal immigration from Mexico plummeted to almost nothing during the second half of the decade. Illegal migration was supplanted by legal migration.


Long-time opponents of immigration have seized on 9/11 to argue against legalization of Mexican migration in favor of drastic cuts in existing levels of legal immigration. The connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and illegal immigration from Mexico is nonexistent, though.


None of the 19 hijackers entered the country illegally or as immigrants. They all arrived in the U.S. with valid temporary nonimmigrant tourist or student visas. None of them arrived via Mexico, and none were Mexican. Sealing the Mexican border with a three-tiered, 2,000-mile replica of the Berlin Wall patrolled by thousands of American troops would not have kept a single Sept. 11 terrorist out of the U.S.


Washington can take necessary steps to secure our borders without sacrificing the benefits of immigration. On May 14, 2002, Bush signed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. Passed unanimously by Congress, the legislation focuses on identifying potential terrorists abroad and keeping them out of the U.S. Notably absent from the bill were any provisions rolling back levels of legal immigration or bolstering efforts to curb undocumented migration from Mexico.


Members of Congress rightly understood, when crafting the legislation, that Mexican migration is not a threat to national security. Indeed, legalizing and regularizing the movement of workers across the U.S.-Mexican border would enhance our national security by bringing much of the underground labor market into the open, encouraging newly documented workers to cooperate fully with law enforcement officials, and freeing resources for border security and the war on terrorism. It would begin to drain the swamp of smuggling and document fraud that facilitates illegal immigration, and would encourage millions of currently undocumented workers to make themselves known to authorities by registering with the government, reducing cover for terrorists who manage to enter the country and overstay their visas.


Legalization would allow the government to devote more of its resources to keeping terrorism out of the country. Before Sept. 11, the U.S. government had stationed more than four times as many border enforcement agents on the Mexican border as along the Canadian one, even though the latter is more than twice as long and has been the preferred border of entry for Middle Easterners trying to enter the U.S. illegally. A system that allows Mexican workers to enter the U.S. legally would free up thousands of government personnel and save an estimated $3,000,000,000 a year--resources that would then be available to fight terrorism.


Making work legal


The realities of the North American labor market demand a system of legal, regulated migration to and from Mexico that conforms to how millions of people on both sides of the border arrange their lives. A reformed immigration system must create a legal channel through which Mexican nationals can enter and remain in the U.S. for a definite time to work.


A temporary work visa (TWV) should be created that would allow Mexican nationals to remain in the U.S. to work for a limited period. The visa could authorize work for a definite period--perhaps three years--and would be renewable for an additional limited period; permit unlimited multiple entries for as long as the visa was valid; allow complete mobility between employers and sectors of the American economy; and entitle the holder to "national treatment."


Mobility is essential so that workers can exercise full freedom to change jobs to realize maximum pay and working conditions, under the theory that their best projection against below-market pay and working conditions is the ability to leave for a better offer. On an economy-wide scale, full mobility would allow the supply of labor to shift between sectors to meet changing demand. The visa must also confer on the immigrant worker national treatment--that is, the same legal protections extended by law to native workers. That would ensure that temporary workers do not enjoy any unfair legal advantage or suffer any legal disadvantage compared to other workers. Mobility and national treatment will protect immigrant workers from the real and perceived abuses of past "guest worker" programs that tied them to specified employers, making visa holders overly dependent on the good will of their employers.


To encourage work and protect taxpayers, holders of a TWV should be ineligible for Federal means-tested welfare programs. The immigrant provisions of the 1996 welfare reform act should be affirmed, both in the law establishing the temporary worker visa and in any reauthorization of Federal welfare law. Decoupling the visa from welfare would benefit immigrant workers in two ways: It would help low-income families avoid the welfare trap, and it would insulate the temporary visa program from charges that it is a burden to taxpayers. Pro-immigration groups that lobby for restoration of welfare benefits for new and future immigrants are ultimately hurting the interests of the very people they claim to respect.


The number of visas issued should be sufficient to meet demand in the U.S. labor market. Using the current estimated net inflow of undocumented workers, 300,000 visas per year would be a reasonable starting point. Distribution of visas could be rationed through a one-time application fee. The fee should be set high enough to offset costs and regulate demand, but low enough to undercut smugglers, perhaps in the range of $1,000. In addition, a program should be created to allow undocumented workers already in the U.S. to earn legal status based on years of work and other productive behavior. They should be issued TWVs immediately, provided they register with the government and do not pose a threat to America's internal or national security. Those who have lived and worked in the U.S. for more than a certain period should be eligible to apply for permanent residence status and, ultimately, citizenship. Like new entrants, undocumented workers already in the country would be required to pay the same application fee.


Legalizing undocumented workers already in the U.S. would not be a mere repeat of the 1980s IRCA "amnesty." Undocumented workers would not be granted automatic permanent residence status. All eligible immigrants could be issued temporary worker visas, valid for a limited period only. To gain permanent residence status, they would then need to apply for permanent residency through existing channels. They would not receive preferential treatment, but would be processed along with other legally qualified applicants for permanent residency.


The Federal government's 15-year campaign against Mexican migration has failed by any objective measure. The President and Congress should return to the task of reforming the nation's dysfunctional immigration system into one that is economic, humane, and compatible with how Americans actually arrange their lives.


Daniel T. Griswold is associate director, Center for Trade Policy Studies, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.
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