Immigration Insanity


I have made a personal commitment to finding objective information about hot-button issues facing America and the world. Previous installments have included climate change, terrorism, and poverty; in these cases I have provisionally concluded that the widespread alarmism of the media, politicians, and the general public is unwarranted.

This time I turn to immigration, specifically Mexican immigration into America. Here again the issue has all the earmarks of alarmism. The pundits tell us that a rising tide of Mexican peasants is invading America, taking jobs from American workers, diluting our culture and legal traditions, harming our economy, and destroying our society. And the politicians warn us ominously that unless we do something about it -- namely electing them to further militarize the border, inspect employers, and harass immigrants -- all will be lost.

But what is the truth of the matter? Where is the data, and what conclusions can we legitimately draw from that data? As a first step toward finding out, yesterday I read Beyond Smoke and Mirrors by Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan Malone. In part using detailed data from the Mexican Migration Project, the authors analyze the seven stages of migration (leaving, crossing the border, arriving, working, remitting money to the home country, returning home, and going again) and show that traditionally Mexican immigrants have been temporary workers, not permanent settlers. However, as the U.S. federal government has increased the costs of crossing the border and arriving in America, Mexican immigrants have naturally decided not to run the gauntlet again and have stayed in America. The federal policies (highlighted by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, or IRCA) are especially wrongheaded in the context of the deepening economic and cultural integration between Mexico and America over the last 20 years.

They summarize their findings as follows (pp. 140-141), where a few clarifying notes of mine are in square quotes:

If the United States has set out to design a dysfunctional immigration policy, it could hardly have done a better job than what it did between 1986 and 1996. U.S. taxpayers now waste at least $3 billion annually in essentially useless border enforcement while the efficiency of Border Patrol operations is in rapid decline. Despite its extravagance, the expensive post-IRCA enforcement regime has had no detectable effect, either in deterring undocumented migrants or in raising the probability of their apprehension. It has been effective, however, in causing at least 160 needless deaths each year [because immigrants have been shunted away from cities like San Diego and El Paso into the mountains and deserts along thinly populated stretches of the border]. It has also lowered wages for workers -- both native and foreign, legal and illegal -- and exacerbated income inequality in the United States [by increasing administrative burdens for employers and leading to greater use of subcontracting arrangements]. Furthermore, it has guaranteed that these negative externalities are widely felt by transforming a seasonal movement of male workers going to three states [California, Texas, and Illinois] into a national population of settled families dispersed throughout the country. Later attempts to ban noncitizens from receiving social services have marginalized both documented and undocumented migrants and undermined the health, education, and welfare of future American citizens. These attacks on social rights [!] have only served accelerate the movement of Mexicans toward naturalization, setting the state for even larger migrant flows in the future [since naturalized citizens can more easily bring in relatives]. In the end, we have the worst of all possible worlds: continued and growing Mexican migration under conditions that are detrimental to the United States, its citizens, and the migrants themselves [and also, they stress elsewhere, Mexico and its prospects for development].

All of these negative consequences fundamentally stem from the unwillingness of the United States to accept the reality of North American integration. In NAFTA the nation committed itself to a joint framework for the continent-wide integration of markets for goods, capital, information, commodities, and services, but since then it has refused to recognize the inevitable fact that labor markets also merge in an integrated economy. In practical if not in logical terms, it is impossible to create a single North American market characterized by the free movement of all factors of production except one. Rather than bringing labor migration into the open and managing it in ways that might maximize the benefits and minimize the costs, the United States has employed increasingly repressive means and growing amounts of money to drive the flows underground to maintain the illusion of a controlled border -- one that is miraculously porous with respect to all movements except those involving labor and drugs.

It's a sad story, made sadder by the fact that Mexico and America share a two-thousand-mile border and must live with each other forever. America has witnessed bursts of immigration before from other developing countries, since increased trade typically leads to increased immigration as well. Such immigration tends to follow a parabolic arc, in which immigration increases rapidly but then declines once the source country advances beyond a certain point. For example, when South Korea was advancing from one of the poorest countries in Asia to one of the richest (from 1965 to 1995), over 750,000 people left Korea and settled in the USA (rising rapidly in the mid-70s, peaking for about twelve years, then falling off rapidly in the early 1990s). If relations between Mexico and America were normal, we would see a similar "migration hump". But unfortunately they are not normal, for a long litany of reasons related to historical misunderstanding, cultural antagonism, and political manipulation.

So what is to be done? The authors recommend the following:

I might add removing the provision allowing automatic citizenship for anyone born in the United States (a holdover from the 1790s, when it was difficult to get to America), demilitarizing the border, and privatizing numerous benefits so that taxpayers are not footing the bill for immigrants to use such benefits.

I don't claim that these are all the answers. The authors of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors pay precious little attention to policies inside Mexico that have caused it to be perpetually developing but never developed (corruption, nationalization of industry, a lack of transparency, an unstable currency, relatively weak protection for property rights, and the like), but I suppose that is not their focus since they are working to change American policies, not Mexican policies. In any case I think their book is a good start toward a more rational understanding of the dynamics of migration between Mexico and the United States. As I read more books on the topic I'll report further.

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal