Backfire at the Border: Why Enforcement without Legalization

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Despite increased enforcement at the U.S.-Mexican borderbeginning in the 1980s, the number of foreign-born workers enteringthe United States illegally each year has not diminished. Today anestimated 10 million or more people reside in the United Stateswithout legal documentation.

For the past two decades, the U.S. government has pursued acontradictory policy on North American integration. While the U.S.government has pursued more commercial integration through theNorth American Free Trade Agreement, it has sought to unilaterallycurb the flow of labor across the U.S.-Mexican border. That policyhas not only failed to reduce illegal immigration; it has actuallymade the problem worse.

Increased border enforcement has only succeeded in pushingimmigration flows into more remote regions. That has resulted in atripling of the death rate at the border and, at the same time, adramatic fall in the rate of apprehension. As a result, the cost toU.S. taxpayers of making one arrest along the border increased from$300 in 1992 to $1,700 in 2002, an increase of 467 percent in justa decade.

Enforcement has driven up the cost of crossing the borderillegally, but that has had the unintended consequence ofencouraging illegal immigrants to stay longer in the United Statesto recoup the cost of entry. The result is that illegal immigrantsare less likely to return to their home country, causing anincrease in the number of illegal immigrants remaining in theUnited States. Whatever one thinks about the goal of reducingmigration from Mexico, U.S. policies toward that end have clearlyfailed, and at great cost to U.S. taxpayers.

A border policy that relies solely on enforcement is bound tofail. Congress should build on President Bush's immigrationinitiative to enact a temporary visa program that would allowworkers from Canada, Mexico, and other countries to work in theUnited States without restriction for a certain limited time.Undocumented workers already in the United States who do not have acriminal record should be given temporary legal status.

Douglas S. Massey

Douglas S. Massey is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and coauthor of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002).