How Do We Control Illegal Immigration?

Doug Massey is right. The debate about Mexican immigration easily turns emotional, and it often aggravates Americans’ feelings of insecurity that are not directly related to immigration. September 11 and subsequent events have intensified these emotions, but sizeable immigration flows to the United States have always provoked similar responses, both in modern times with respect to Mexican immigration (e.g., the debate leading up to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, or California’s Proposition 183), and throughout our history with respect to previous immigration waves.

Nonetheless, I agree with Victor Davis Hanson that the illegal nature of most Mexican immigration is a big problem, even for those who believe that on the whole the United States benefits from such immigration. In addition to the issues that Hanson raises, there is the fundamental point that before we can hope to reform U.S. immigration policy, we must first gain better control over who enters the country. As amply demonstrated by the research of Massey and others, Mexicans still seem to find it relatively easy to enter the United States outside of our official admissions system. Until that changes, discussions about the best U.S. policy toward Mexican immigration remain largely academic.

Therefore, to my mind, the critical question is: how do we begin to control illegal immigration from Mexico? I don’t know the answer. I have no particular expertise on this topic, so I’m hoping for guidance from those of you with more knowledge about the issue. But let me indulge in a few observations.

Border enforcement cannot be the primary answer. In recent years, we have dramatically increased expenditures on manpower and technology aimed at stopping illegal border crossing, with minimal results (and, as Massey points out, often counterproductive ones). If we continue trying to control illegal immigration in this fashion, we will spend huge sums of money to little effect.

Given that most illegal immigrants come to the United States to work, why don’t we get serious about workplace enforcement? Retail stores are able to verify in a matter of seconds consumer credit cards used to make purchases. Why couldn’t a similar system be put in place to verify the Social Security numbers of employees before they are hired? Many European countries have systems like this in place. Why don’t we try out something like that? Are Americans really that opposed to national identification cards? I realize that, in many ways, the immigration situation in Europe is different from that in the United States. I also realize that an electronic verification system would miss immigrants employed in the underground economy. But I suspect that we could do much more to control illegal immigration by directing technology and other enforcement resources toward the workplace rather than toward our porous southern border.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In the lead essay to this month’s Cato Unbound, celebrated essayist Richard Rodriguez offers a provocative meditation on the place of Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. “I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture,” Rodriguez writes, “But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.” Arguing that the question of Mexican immigration “might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist,” Rogriguez considers the religious and cultural character of Mexicans, and the role of Mexico as a repository of American sin, and American fear.

Response Essays

  • Victor Davis Hanson recounts the proposals from his book Mexifornia, and sets out a biting, detailed reply to Richard Rodriguez’s lead essay. “Here he has sadly advanced no real argument,” Hanson writes, “but instead offers only a melange of ethnic vignettes, and, for some reason, ad hominem attacks of the very sort he used to deplore.” Hanson charges that Rodriguez, writing from his tony San Francisco haunts, offers only a cartoon version of his and others’ work, and fails to directly face the troubling economic and social consequences of unlawfully resident Mexicans in America evident to Hanson in the San Joaquin Valley.

  • In his reply to Rodriguez, Douglass Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, writes that “Mexican immigrants are routinely portrayed as a tidal wave of human beings fleeing an impoverished, disorganized nation who are desperate to settle in the United States, where they will overwhelm our culture, displace our language, mooch our social services, and undermine our national security… This profile, however, bears no discernible relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.” Massey, drawing on his decades of research on Mexican migration, argues each element of this picture is false, and has exacerbated the problems of Mexico-U.S. immigration.

  • How well are Mexican immigrants and their offspring assimilating? In his contribution to this month’s discussion, University of Texas economist Stephen J. Trejo lays out the latest findings. According to Trejo, “Mexican Americans are not too far off the path of intergenerational assimilation traveled by previous waves of European immigrants. During their first few generations in the United States, Mexican-American families experience substantial economic and social mobility, and their actual progress is probably even greater than what we see in available data.” However, a slow rate of educational attainment remains a “critical problem” that may delay the full integration of Mexican Americans.