Tie Up NAFTA’s Loose Ends

So the debate is not emotional? See how quickly it degenerates into ad hominem attacks. The facts, however, are these:

The United States has received significant Mexican immigration since 1907, when U.S. employers began recruitment in Mexico following the termination of labor migration from Japan.

The U.S. government sponsored its own labor recruitment programs in 1917-1918 and 1942-1964.

Undocumented migration rose only as legal avenues to U.S. entry were progressively closed off: by ending the Bracero Program (1965), capping immigration from the Western Hemisphere (1968), placing Mexico under the country quota (1976), and limiting family immigration (1996).

Despite all the talk of floods and invasions, the level of undocumented in-migration to the U.S. has not increased in several decades. If anything, it has declined. What has changed is the rate of out-migration, and this has occurred because of our militarization of the border. Rather than circulating back and forth, migrants avoid the gauntlet we have erected at the border by hunkering down and staying longer in the U.S.

The net effect of our harsh border policy has been to increase the rate of undocumented population growth in the U.S. By lowering the rate of return migration to Mexico while leaving the rate of in-migration largely unaffected, it has increased net migration from around 180,000 persons per year in the late 1970s and early 1980s to around 368,000 per year over the past decade.

The increase in border enforcement has actually reduced the probability of apprehending undocumented border crossers to a 40-year low by pushing the flows into remote territory where fewer officers are stationed. But it has also tripled the death rate.

It is logically contradictory, and impossible in practical terms, to create a single North American economy that integrates markets for goods, capital, raw materials, services, and information but somehow keeps labor markets separate.

Since NAFTA took effect, total trade with Mexico has tripled, the entry of intra-company transfers from Mexico has increased by a factor of six, Mexican tourism has increased nearly threefold, the number of business and exchange visitors has nearly doubled, and the entry of Mexican investors has grown 30 times.

Around one million U.S. citizens presently live in Mexico and around 11 million Mexicans live in the US.

Our efforts to maintain the fiction that we can integrate economically while maintaining separate labor markets through an unprecedented expansion of border enforcement have not only failed; they have backfired by accelerating the rate of undocumented population growth and lowering the probability of apprehension.

It is clear to me that repressive immigration policies toward Mexico have failed at great cost to taxpayers and that a different approach is called for. I believe that the United States should treat Mexico in much the same way that Western Europe treated Spain and Portugal when they were brought into the European Union, and the way that Western Europe is now treating Poland and other nations in Eastern Europe. If we worked with Mexico to improve its markets for capital, credit, and insurance and raise the level of its infrastructure, we would eliminate the economic incentives that now drive migration within the decade. And in the short term, if we were to offer temporary worker visas to Mexicans, many of those now in the country would ultimately return home. For those who are too deeply enmeshed in the United States to return at this point, a legalization program is the only humane alternative. People who entered the country as minors should be given blanket amnesty as long as they have no criminal record, for they are guilty of nothing more than obeying their parents. For the remainder, they should be given provisional legalization, and a path to legal permanent residence should be established to allow them to adjust status through the accumulation of credits for paying taxes, learning English, staying employed, having US-born children, and generally staying out of trouble.

If we did these things, I believe everyone would be better off—Mexicans in Mexico, Americans here, and the migrants themselves. If we bring migrants above ground, charge fees for temporary labor visas, and collect taxes from all migrants, it would be possible to create a pool of money to offset the very real costs of immigration to state and local governments, mainly for heath care and education. American workers would also benefit by competing against workers with full labor rights rather than comepeting against an exploitable underground pool, especially if the measures I propose were to be accompanied by a simple employment verification program required of all employers to confirm the right to work.

The system we have now is a dismal failure, and going further down the road of repressive border enforcement will only continue past trends: lowering the rate of return to Mexico, raising the rate of undocumented population growth in this country, squandering taxpayers’ money, and needlessly causing the deaths of hundreds of people.

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.