Commentary

When Employment Lines Cross Borders

By Daniel Griswold
This article appeared in the Star Telegram on April 21, 2008.

Apprehensions along the U.S. border with Mexico have fallen in recent months, but Americans should not be lulled into thinking that the problem of illegal immigration has somehow been fixed.

Credit for the decrease belongs at least as much to the downturn in the construction industry as to increased border enforcement. Whatever the short-term progress, illegal immigration will remain a problem until Washington fixes our broken immigration system. Pouring billions more into fences, border patrols and workplace raids won’t solve the problem.

If we want to permanently stem the flow of illegal immigration, secure the border and meet our long-term work-force needs, Congress must offer a legal alternative to illegal immigration. ”

Low-skilled immigrants come to the United States because jobs are being created that not enough Americans want to fill. In a typical year, the U.S. economy creates hundreds of thousands of net new jobs in such important sectors as food preparation, hospitality, cleaning, landscaping and retail.

In the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, job growth in the past decade has been especially robust — almost double the growth rate in non-border states — while the average unemployment across the four states remains below the national average.

Meanwhile, the supply of native-born Americans who have traditionally filled the lower-end jobs — typically Americans without a high school diploma — continues to shrink. As recently as the early 1960s, half of adult Americans in the work force did not possess a high school education; today, the share is below 7 percent and dropping.

This is good news, but it means that employers in the faster-growing border states simply cannot find enough legal workers to meet the needs of their growing customer base.

Yet our immigration system offers virtually no legal way for a peaceful, healthy, hard-working young adult from Mexico or Central America to enter the United States temporarily to fill those jobs. Instead, such workers face the irresistible temptation to cross the border illegally, or to enter legally and overstay their visas.

Despite ramped-up enforcement, the number of people living in the United States without legal documents continues to grow. Our border enforcement has only pushed migrants into more remote regions of the desert, driving up fees for smuggling and the number of deaths on the border. Since 1994, 4,500 people have died horrible deaths from heat or dehydration for the “crime” of wanting a better job.

If we want to permanently stem the flow of illegal immigration, secure the border and meet our long-term work-force needs, Congress must offer a legal alternative to illegal immigration. We must create a temporary worker program sufficiently robust to meet the ongoing demands of the U.S. labor market.

Reform also should include a pathway out of the underground economy for the 12 million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States. This would not be a scot-free amnesty. Newly legalized workers can justly be assessed a fine and back taxes and serve probation befitting the misdemeanor they’ve committed.

Real reform would reduce illegal immigration dramatically. In the early 1950s, the border patrol was apprehending 1 million illegal entrants a year. In response, Congress beefed up enforcement while dramatically expanding the number of legal visas through the bracero program. Apprehensions quickly dropped by 95 percent.

The fatal flaw of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was its lack of any accommodation for future legal immigrants.

Let’s not make that mistake again. Immigration reform must include not only legalization of workers already in our communities and work force and increased enforcement at the border, but also a new temporary worker program sufficient to meet our future labor force needs.

A majority of Americans are ready for a workable compromise on immigration reform. All three major party presidential candidates still in the race have supported comprehensive immigration reform. Those candidates who ran on a populist platform against any expansion of legal immigration failed to gain traction among primary voters.

If the current Congress is unwilling to fix the immigration problem with real reform, Americans should elect a new Congress and president who will.

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