Thursday, May 17, 2007


Well, the shouts are "amnesty!" not "sanctuary!" Nevertheless, as immigration talks are once again occupying Congress--and perhaps this time fruitfully--it seemed an appropriate time to make a few points on this contentious issue. Like many in politics, the issue of illegal immigration seems to be one so mired in the act of politics, wrapped up in obstinate ideology on both sides of the aisle detached from any reality or research, that any real, fruitful deliberation is a rarity. The left shouts "amnesty!" with gleeful fervor; the right shouts "amnesty?!" with reproachful disbelief. The left ignores the fact that illegal immigrants are criminals by definition and uncontrolled illegal immigration is a danger to our economy and security; the right ignores the impossibility of deporting every single illegal immigrant within our borders, the impossibility of keeping every would-be illegal immigrant out of our borders, and that our economy is in many respects dependent on outside workers. Neither side is willing to wholly address the bigger picture of the issue within our country, let alone the cross-boundary issue. The latest proposal seems to cut through at least some of this myopia, and is garnering a fair amount of respect among politicians in this, a lame duck presidential year.

Perhaps the following thoughts and facts can help provide a bit of a framework with which to understand the current discussion and any future immigration discussions we, as informed citizens, may witness.


Don't let these first parts provide assumptions that I'm simply bashing Mexico; that isn't at all the case. Nevertheless, let's start with our friends to the south. Mexico, for its part, has among the most rigid stances on immigration in the world: coming into Mexico illegally has been punishable by up to 2 years in prison (a felony by most standards) since 1974. Furthermore, concerned by illegal immigration from their own southern border, former President Vicente Fox sent thousands of Mexican troops to their southern territory about five years ago--a moved praised by Mexicans. Fox had given legal status to only 15,000 foreigners without papers in the course of his Presidency (Contreras, 2005), compared to 240,000 illegal immigrants who were apprehended by Mexico in 2005 alone, nearly all of whom were deported. The irony, of course, is that Mexico was simultaneously condemning the increased border patrol deployment on our southern border and the efforts to criminalize undocumented aliens in the United States, while lobbying for the status of millions of illegals from Mexico to be upgraded by the US government. You remember these stories in the news, right? According to Jose Luis Soberanes, president of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, "one of the saddest national failings on immigration issues is the contradiction in demanding that the North (the United States) respect migrants' rights, which we are not capable of guaranteeing in the South (along Mexico's border with Guatemala)" (AP, 2005).

The notoriously poor treatment of illegals within Mexico stems from its Constitution, which allows for a number of restrictions and punishments that would likely be reviled as racist--and perhaps rightly so--if codified in the United States. Mexico's General Population Act, specifically, makes illegal immigration punishable by up to two years in prison plus a fine (Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution), or up to 10 years imprisonment if the individual is deported and later is caught re-entering (article 118). It allows local police to join with federal immigration agents in enforcing immigration laws (Article 73). J. Michael Waller (2006) of the Center for Security Policy also notes that private citizens may make citizens arrests on illegal immigrants, and immigrants of all kinds may be expelled from the country at any time and for any reason without due process. More broadly, immigrants are to be admitted into Mexico on the basis of their potential to "contribute to national progress" (see parallel here with one component of the bill currently being passed around Congress) and must have income to support themselves, but immigrants (legal or illegal) are still forbidden to take part in the political affairs of the country (Articles 9 and 33). In the United States, on the other hand, the only thing from which a legal immigrant is barred is serving as President, and even that is openly debated in some circles thanks to the selective popularity of Arnold.

At the same time, the Mexican Constitution serves as many Mexican governmental officials' scapegoat when pressed for why they cannot prevent its citizens from emigration--that is, to run/jump/swim north to the United States: Article 11 guarantees a "freedom of transit," granting citizens the right to move freely throughout Mexico and the world, even if they are barred from a destination country (Newell, 2006). A reasonable person would likely note that this provision falls in contradiction with the laws of other sovereign states.

We frequently hear of the abuses against illegal immigrants in our country, as well we should when they so egregiously occur. In December of 2005, however, a report released by the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico--the same group who planned the distribution of border crossing maps for entry into the United States--noted the widespread abuses against illegal immigrants within Mexico, committed in good part by Mexican government officials. The report, however, barely made any headlines and had not been mentioned by any Mexican presidential candidate as of mid-June (Campbell, 2006), and so far as I could find, no mentions were made in the remainder of the campaigns.

Interestingly, a 2002 Zogby poll showed that 73% of Mexicans believed Americans to be racist, intolerant, and not very hard-working, while 78% of Americans see Mexicans as hard-working (Elder, 2006; McLean, 2006). While government policy may not be the best barometer of the sentiments of a population, the immigration policies of the United States pale in comparison with those of Mexico when searching for signs of xenophia. Had the National Human Rights Commission's report received its fair amount of attention either by the press or politicians of Mexico, the negative views of Americans harbored by Mexicans may be partly rectified through an examination of their own culture.

Given the apparent hypocrisy--the strict policy enforced on Mexico's southern border combined with their sharp scrutiny of American policy and any attempt to fortify it (sometimes quite literally, a la "the wall")--some contend that the United States should more closely mirror the policies of our southern neighbor so long as they remain so rigid themselves. The proponents of this view most often are seeking to limit access to our own southern border. For this reason, they should be thankful for Mexico's policy, as those Central Americans that do make it into Mexico are typically headed further north to the United States. It is conceivable, then, that Mexico's perceived self-interest is not in protecting its economy from outsiders, but in preventing non-Mexicans from making the immigration situation in the United States even more politically salient, hurting Mexicans' chances of crossing the border in the process.

Moreover, the notion of protecting the United States from illegal immigrants by way of strict border enforcement should be closely inspected. With remittances back to Mexico from Mexicans working within the United States reaching $16 billion in 2004--Mexico's second largest source of revenue after oil exports (AP, 2006)--it is clear that the economic incentive for crossing the border is in large part to support family at home.

This is, of course, indicative of the economic situation of the immigrants coming from Mexico. As a whole, the country is a top-fifteen economy whose per capita GDP is approximately $10,000-relatively healthy by global standards. Of the population, though, a 2002 report from the Mexican government stated that up to 42% of the rural population lives in extreme poverty compared to only 12% of urban citizens who face such conditions (Steorts, 2006). Steorts suspects that this is in large part a byproduct of communal farms whose plots have become increasingly small--so small that farmers cannot grow crops at competitive prices. The land, further, cannot be bought or sold by Mexican law, but only passed to an hear, keeping the small plot structure intact and preventing real ownership rights. This rural population makes up perhaps the bulk of the Mexican immigration influx in the United States. Of political importance, those Mexicans with the strongest incentive to demand domestic reform--the poorest Mexicans--are those that leave their country altogether, thus perpetuating the status quo.

If conditions within Mexico do not change, half of the incentive for illeglas to come to the United States remains unaddressed. But beyond this, the means of addressing the American side of the border should be considered in a fuller context. According to Daniel Griswold (2003), most Mexicans who come to the United States com ewith the intention of solving "temporary problems of family finance" by sending money home in the form of remittances, rather than with the intention of permanently settling in the US. The numbers, from an historical perspective, support this. Between the end of the Bracero program in 1964 until the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, Mexicans had essentially free passage back and forth across the border. In this period, nearly 80% of Mexican immigrants chose to eventually return to their homeland. This follows suit with the notion that immigration is driven by demand for labor in the United States, as it is far more expensive to be unemployed in the United States than it is in Mexico, by virtue of cost of living discrepancies. With fewer restrictions on the border, workers know that they can go home when work is unavailable and return when it is once again available to them. This, rather than having unemployed illegal immigrants sittling idly by with no income, intuitively seems infinitely preferable, as the absence of such individuals would surely contribute to a drop in petty crime and ease the burden on our overpopulated jails.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service doubled the number of Bracero visas in the 1950s in order to meet the demand for labor in the United States, illegal immigration from Mexico became nearly nonexistent (Griswold, 2003). This demonstrates the strong preference for channels of legal entry into the US when such channels are available.

Now, with tighter borders, the crossing becomes more hazardous and more expensive, as would-be immigrants have to pay "coyotes" to help smuggle them across the border. Additionally, their illegal status artificially depresses their wages once in the United States, as they have no bargaining power. The combination of a more hazardous and expensive crossing with lower wages translates into longer stays once inside the States, in order to make the crossing worthwhile. The median stay for undocumented Mexican migrants was 2.6 years before the IRCA was passed, and rose to 6.6 years after Clinton's border tightening (Griswold, 2003).

Thus, in order to quell the tide of illegal immigration and alleviate the pressures on human rights for those that do seek work in the United States, perhaps we should do the simple thing: legalize it. If a sufficient number of temporary work visas are granted to meet the demand for labor within the United States, workers will come through safe, legal, trackable and taxable channels. With the workers legalized, wages will no longer be artificially suppressed and immigrant workers will therefore not receive a competitive advantage over American laborers. (Higher wages for laborers in order to satisfy US law is something that simply must be accepted by employers and consumers alike, if one is to recognize the need to address illegal immigration. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.) Additionally, as suggested by Griswold (2003), the temporary visas, if desired to do so by our domestic political agendas, can exclude their holders from welfare benefits, ending the argument that the immigrants are drains on the economy and preventing them from staying in the country on a work visa if they are not working. With the demand for labor met, illegals will no longer risk the dangerous and expensive path to an already satisfied labor market where it is far more expensive to be unemployed than where they came from. It would, of course, be necessary within such a system to stringently enforce the employment of only legal workers--a point often made in our own legislative chambers.

While properly arranged and apportioned temporary work visas may be in large part a solution to the current immigration debate in the United States, changes within Mexico should be fostered in order to increase regional stability. The benefit of temporary work visas may extend across the border into Mexico in this regard. Allowing for free legal passage across the border for visa holders, Mexicans can return to their homes as they so often prefer to do when given the opportunity. Therefore, while bringing money into the Mexican economy, this disenfranchised population also gain the incentive to work for political change within their home country, perhaps producing the necessary impetus to move beyond the status quo.

AP (2005). Mexico acknowledges poor treatment of migrants in its territory.
AP (2006, January 25). Border wall would fall.
Campbell, M. On road to U.S., danger lurks at every turn. (2006, June 16). San Francisco Chronicle.
Contreras, J. (2005, June 5). Stepping over the line. Newsweek, 38.
Elder, L. (2006, April 10). How does Mexico treat its illegals? Human Events, 62(13), p17.
Griswold, D.T. (2003, March). Confronting the problem of illegal Mexican immigration to the U.S. USA Today Magazine, 131(2694), p10-14.
McLean, R.T. (2006, April 13). The crisis of Mexico.
Newell, J. Mexico treats illegal immigrants in its midst harshly. (2006, April 30). San Bernardino County Sun.
Steorts, J.L. (2006, July 17). Mexico, heal thyself. National Review, 58(13), p25-27.
Waller, J.M. (2006). Mexico's glass house. Center for Security Policy.

Currently listening to: "God Rocket" by I Mother Earth
Previous activity: Continuing to read Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities
Next thing on the agenda: Scrubs!

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