Commentary

Mexican Workers Come Here to Work: Let Them!

By Daniel Griswold
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 22, 2002.

The 11 Mexican migrants found dead in a sealed rail car in Iowa last week were twice victimized—directly by smugglers who callously left them to die, and indirectly by a U.S. immigration law in conflict with the realities of American life.

While the U.S. government has encouraged closer trade, investment, and political ties with Mexico, it has labored in vain to restrict the flow of labor across the border. Starting with the clampdown on illegal immigration in the mid-1980s, the U.S. government 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 stem the flow of undocumented workers into the U.S. labor market.

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Today 8 million 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. More than half of the illegal immigrants entering and already here come from Mexico.

One tragic 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 deadly peril of migrants. Before the crackdown, the large majority of Mexican migrants entered via three narrow, urban gates—San Diego, Calif., and El Paso and Laredo, Texas. In response to the beefed-up border enforcement begun by the Clinton administration in 1993, 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. But the consequences have been deadly for more than 2,000 migrants who have perished since 1995 from heat and dehydration in remote areas of the desert or in sealed trucks and rail cars.

America’s immigration laws are colliding with economic reality, and reality is winning. Migration from Mexico is driven by a fundamental mismatch between a rising demand for low-skilled labor in the U.S. and a shrinking domestic supply of workers willing to fill those jobs. The Labor Department estimates that the total number of jobs in our economy that require only short-term training will increase from 53.2 million in 2000 to 60.9 million by 2010, a net increase of 7.7 million.

Meanwhile, the supply of American workers willing to do such work continues to fall because of an aging workforce and rising education levels. By 2010, the median age of American workers will reach 40.6 years, while the share of adult native-born men without a high school diploma continues to plunge: from more than half in 1960 to less than 10% today. Older, educated Americans understandably have better things to do with their work time than to wash windows, wait tables and hang drywall.

Mexican migrants provide a ready source of labor to fill that growing gap. Yet immigration law contains virtually no legal channel through which low-skilled immigrant workers can enter the country to meet demand. The result, predictably, is illegal immigration and all the black-market pathologies that come with it.

Progress toward fixing the problem of illegal migration was derailed by September 11, but most members of Congress understand that Mexican migration is not a threat to national security. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 that Congress passed in May represents the right kind of policy response to terrorism. The law focuses on identifying terrorist suspects abroad and keeping them out of the U.S. Notably absent from the bill were any provisions rolling back levels of legal immigration or cracking down on undocumented migration from Mexico.

Indeed, creating a legal path for the movement of workers across the U.S.-Mexican border would enhance national security. 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 and overstay their visas.

Legalization would allow the government to devote more resources to keeping terrorists out of the country. Before Sept. 11, the government had stationed more than four times as many border enforcement agents on the Mexican border as along the Canadian one, even though the Canadian border 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 billion a year—resources that would then be available to fight terrorism.

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When President Bush and President Fox meet this weekend at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Mexico, they should reaffirm their earlier commitment to make migration across the border “safe, orderly, legal and dignified.” Such a system should include a new temporary worker visa that would allow Mexican workers to enter the U.S. labor market legally for a certain period, and allow undocumented workers already in the U.S. to earn legal status based on years of work and other productive behavior.

Current immigration law has made lawbreakers out of millions of hard-working, otherwise law-abiding people—immigrant workers and native employers alike—whose only “crime” is a desire to work together in our market economy for mutual advantage. Death in a boxcar is perverse punishment for seeking a better life.

Daniel Griswold is the director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.