Mexican Workers Come Here to Work: Let Them!

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

The 11 Mexican migrants found dead in a sealed rail car in Iowalast week were twice victimized--directly by smugglers whocallously left them to die, and indirectly by a U.S. immigrationlaw 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 vainto restrict the flow of labor across the border. Starting with theclampdown on illegal immigration in the mid-1980s, the U.S.government has imposed new and burdensome regulations on Americanemployers and dramatically increased spending on border control.Despite those aggressive efforts, America's border policy hasfailed to stem the flow of undocumented workers into the U.S. labormarket.

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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 moreenter illegally or overstay their visas. More than half of theillegal immigrants entering and already here come from Mexico.

One tragic consequence of the suppression policy has been todivert migration flows from a few traditional, urban crossingpoints to more scattered rural areas--to the frustration of ruralresidents 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. Inresponse to the beefed-up border enforcement begun by the Clintonadministration in 1993, migration patterns shifted to remote ruralareas such as the Arizona-Mexico border where patrols are morescattered but conditions are also more dangerous.

The diverted flow has caused headaches for Americans living inthose areas as migrants have trespassed on private property,disturbed livestock, and destroyed property. But the consequenceshave been deadly for more than 2,000 migrants who have perishedsince 1995 from heat and dehydration in remote areas of the desertor 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 afundamental mismatch between a rising demand for low-skilled laborin the U.S. and a shrinking domestic supply of workers willing tofill those jobs. The Labor Department estimates that the totalnumber of jobs in our economy that require only short-term trainingwill increase from 53.2 million in 2000 to 60.9 million by 2010, anet increase of 7.7 million.

Meanwhile, the supply of American workers willing to do suchwork continues to fall because of an aging workforce and risingeducation levels. By 2010, the median age of American workers willreach 40.6 years, while the share of adult native-born men withouta high school diploma continues to plunge: from more than half in1960 to less than 10% today. Older, educated Americansunderstandably have better things to do with their work time thanto wash windows, wait tables and hang drywall.

Mexican migrants provide a ready source of labor to fill thatgrowing gap. Yet immigration law contains virtually no legalchannel through which low-skilled immigrant workers can enter thecountry to meet demand. The result, predictably, is illegalimmigration and all the black-market pathologies that come withit.

Progress toward fixing the problem of illegal migration wasderailed by September 11, but most members of Congress understandthat Mexican migration is not a threat to national security. TheEnhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 thatCongress passed in May represents the right kind of policy responseto terrorism. The law focuses on identifying terrorist suspectsabroad and keeping them out of the U.S. Notably absent from thebill were any provisions rolling back levels of legal immigrationor cracking down on undocumented migration from Mexico.

Indeed, creating a legal path for the movement of workers acrossthe U.S.-Mexican border would enhance national security. It wouldbegin to drain the swamp of smuggling and document fraud thatfacilitates illegal immigration, and would encourage millions ofcurrently undocumented workers to make themselves known toauthorities by registering with the government, reducing cover forterrorists who manage to enter and overstay their visas.

Legalization would allow the government to devote more resourcesto keeping terrorists out of the country. Before Sept. 11, thegovernment had stationed more than four times as many borderenforcement agents on the Mexican border as along the Canadian one,even though the Canadian border is more than twice as long and hasbeen the preferred border of entry for Middle Easterners trying toenter the U.S. illegally. A system that allows Mexican workers toenter the U.S. legally would free up thousands of governmentpersonnel and save an estimated $3 billion a year--resources thatwould then be available to fight terrorism.

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When President Bush and President Fox meet this weekend at theAsian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Mexico, they shouldreaffirm their earlier commitment to make migration across theborder "safe, orderly, legal and dignified." Such a system shouldinclude a new temporary worker visa that would allow Mexicanworkers to enter the U.S. labor market legally for a certainperiod, and allow undocumented workers already in the U.S. to earnlegal status based on years of work and other productivebehavior.

Current immigration law has made lawbreakers out of millions ofhard-working, otherwise law-abiding people--immigrant workers andnative employers alike--whose only "crime" is a desire to worktogether in our market economy for mutual advantage. Death in aboxcar is perverse punishment for seeking a better life.