America's immigration laws are colliding with reality, and reality is winning. Today an estimated 8 million or more people live in the United States 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.
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. For the past 15 years, 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.
When they met more than a year ago in Washington, President Bush and President Fox of Mexico pledged to work together to ensure that migration is "safe, orderly, legal and dignified." Current U.S. law has created a system that is unsafe, disorderly, illegal, and undignified.
Our current border policy has only managed to divert migration flows from a few traditional, urban crossing points to more scattered rural areas. 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 died since 1995 from heat and dehydration in remote areas of the desert or in sealed trucks and rail cars.
Migration from Mexico is driven by a fundamental mismatch between a rising demand for low-skilled labor in the United States and a shrinking domestic supply of workers willing to fill those jobs. The U.S. 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 percent 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 and willing source of labor to fill that growing gap-yet U.S. 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 the terrorist attacks of 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 almost unanimously in May represents the right kind of policy response to terrorism. The new law focuses on identifying terrorist suspects abroad and keeping them out of the country. 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 the country and overstay their visas.
Legalization would allow the government to devote more of its resources to keeping terrorists out of the country. Before September 11, the U.S. government had stationed more than four times as many border enforcement agents on the Mexican border as along the Canadian border, 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 United States illegally. A system that allows Mexican workers to enter the United States 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.
When President Bush and President Fox meet this weekend during the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Mexico, they should reaffirm their earlier commitment to legalization. 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 to allow undocumented workers already in the United States to earn legal status based on years of work and other productive behavior.
Yes, laws should be obeyed, but laws should also be in fundamental harmony with how normal people choose to live their daily lives. The problem is not that undocumented workers and the Americans who hire them are bad people, but that they are forced to work around a bad law.
In the past, when bad laws collide with reality-I'm thinking of the 55 mph speed limit, Prohibition, and early property laws that made illegal squatters out of American settlers-the right response has been to change the law.
Current U.S. 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.
As I see it, we have three options before us: We can muddle through with the current system that leaves hundreds of people dead every year and millions living in a legal twilight zone. Nobody seems happy with that option. Or we can redouble our efforts to crackdown on illegal immigration. We can build a three-tiered fence from San Diego to Brownsville and guard it with 20,000 armed agents of the federal government, at great cost in money and personnel. Or we can recognize reality and create a legal channel so that, in the words of president Bush, willing workers and willing employers can get together to serve the social and economic needs of both our countries.