Only real reform will resolve crisis

October 25, 2005 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on October 25, 2005.

The people of Arizona pay an unacceptable price every day for America’s dysfunctional immigration system. The disruptive flow of humanity across the Arizona desert reflects an immigration law fundamentally out of step with the realities of American life.

Driving illegal immigration are two inexorable trends: The American economy continues to create opportunities for lower‐​skilled workers in such important Arizona industries as tourism and construction, as well as in the retail, food preparation, agriculture and service sectors.

At the same time, the pool of Americans who i would be happy in those jobs continues to shrink because we are getting older and better educated. Yet our immigration system offers no legal channel for peaceful, hard‐​working Mexicans or others to enter our country even temporarily to fill those jobs.

Experience shows that enforcement alone without reform is doomed to fail. Since the federal government began its crackdown on illegal immigration in the 1980s, spending on the Border Patrol has increased tenfold and line‐​watch hours eightfold. For the first time in American history, we have raided and fined U.S. companies that knowingly hire illegal workers. We’ve built fences miles into the desert.

Yet the problem just gets worse. Today, an estimated 11 million immigrants reside in the United States illegally (500,000 in Arizona), with the total growing by 400,000 or more each year.

Unfortunately for Arizonans and immigrants alike, our policy has yielded perverse and deadly consequences. Past crackdowns in urban areas such as San Diego and El Paso have only diverted the flow of people into the more remote desert and ranchland along the Arizona‐​Mexico border.

According to Cato research, a worker crossing the border illegally today is actually more likely to make it across without being apprehended, more likely to stay here once in, and more likely to die in the attempt.

Indeed, the fiscal year that ended in September was the deadliest on record, with 464 deaths recorded along the U.S.-Mexican border, more than half of those in Arizona. A mother was recently found dead near Dateland with her dehydrated 3- year‐​old daughter curled next to her going into shock. Morgues and makeshift refrigerator trucks are full of unidentified bodies. More than 3,500 people have died along the border in the past decade. How many more will die before we fix a broken system?

Practical immigration reform would allow workers to enter the United States temporarily to fill jobs for which too few Americans are interested. Those workers could enter in a safe, orderly, legal way through normal ports of entry, rather than sneaking across the desert at night. Real reform would also legalize the millions already here, not by offering amnesty but through a registration process that would include a fine and only temporary status. If legalized workers wanted to stay here permanently, they would need to apply separately and through normal channels.

Real immigration reform would dramatically cut the flow of illegal workers through Arizona by opening a sufficient channel for legal entry. Legal workers would be more likely to qualify for health insurance, obtain auto insurance and invest in their language and job skills. The increased fees and taxes they would pay could be used to offset related costs to Arizona’s state and local governments.

We would be more secure as a nation because we would know who was entering the country and who was already here. We would drain the swamp of smuggling and document fraud. We could focus our enforcement firepower on terrorists and other criminals rather than on men and women who only want to work and help their families.

The people of Arizona are too savvy to believe that merely throwing more money at border enforcement will solve this vexing problem.

About the Author
Daniel Griswold
Former Director, Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies