Why strengthening the U.S.-Mexican border leads to more illegal immigration

By Peter Schrag
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Even before 2007, when the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform was killed in the Senate, immigration restrictionists made "sealing" the U.S.-Mexican border a precondition for supporting legalization of the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. For a lot of Americans, this idea has been orthodoxy ever since.

Now, with immigration reform again on the table, President Obama has duly taken up the call for a stronger border. In his speech on immigration earlier this month, he lamented the "porous" and "broken" state of U.S. borders, and he described controlling them as an "obligation" and a "responsibility," arguing that the nation has "more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history."

More than 670 miles of border fences, walls, bollards and spikes that Congress decreed in 2006 at an estimated cost of $4 billion (plus future maintenance) are almost completed. The Border Patrol, which was increased from 9,000 agents in 2001 to 20,000 in 2009, costs an estimated $4 billion annually.

Throw in the cost of occasional deployments of the National Guard, as Obama has ordered again; the cost of electronic sensors, surveillance aircraft, training of local police; the cost of detaining, incarcerating and deporting illegal immigrants; and the countless other expenses associated with border security, and the bill runs us nearly $10 billion a year.

But will more boots really seal the border? Immigration reform has a long history of unintended consequences: More than two decades of increased enforcement since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has done little to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. In fact, its seems to have increased their numbers. Meanwhile, the question of jobs, which are the true driver of legal and illegal immigration, has been largely neglected.

Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out nearly a decade ago that measures to secure the border seemed to produce almost the opposite of what was intended. By making the northward crossing more dangerous and expensive, Massey and co-authors Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone wrote in 2002, the border buildup discouraged seasonal laborers from going back to Mexico when they were not working.

With increasing border enforcement, workers who used to shuttle between jobs in California or Texas and home in Zacatecas or Michoacán simply began to stay put and sent for their families, becoming permanent, if sometimes reluctant, residents. According to Massey, post-IRCA border enforcement may have increased the size of the permanent Mexican population in the United States by a factor of nearly four.

More unintended consequences: The anti-immigrant backlash that sparked Arizona's string of anti-immigration legislation -- the new law seeking to drive illegal immigrants out of the state most famously among them -- was produced in large part by tighter border controls in Texas and California. That enforcement squeezed the smuggling of immigrants and drugs into Arizona's Sonoran Desert and mountains.

As noted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California among many others, the element missing from this picture is that immigration, both legal and illegal, is driven more by the economy than it is restrained by border enforcement.

That's not all that different from the immigration patterns of the past century and a half, when immigration levels were almost invariably trailing indicators of the U.S. economy and its sometimes severe worker shortages. One hundred fifty years ago, after the dislocations and slaughter of the Civil War, some states even sent agents to Europe to recruit workers. When times were good, we beckoned to immigrants; when they were bad, we tried to expel them. "We wanted workers," says Philip Martin, an immigration economist in California, "but we got people."

Americans have historically been ambivalent about new arrivals. Ever since colonial days, immigration and immigration restriction have been tightly wound around each other like a double helix. In the same polls in which Americans express support for Arizona's immigration legislation, they also say that by paying fines and back taxes (which most already pay) immigrants should have the right to be legalized. Some places accept, even welcome, illegal immigrants. Some try to expel them. My own state of California grants illegal immigrants relatively low in-state college tuition but denies them driver's licenses.

In the past three years, the U.S. population of illegal immigrants has declined, perhaps by as much as 10 percent, from about 12 million to 11 million. Anti-immigration groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies credit tougher border and workplace enforcement for much of that decline. But some, if not most, has almost certainly been driven by the recession, beginning in the construction industry and continuing in many other sectors that employ large numbers of immigrants. During those three years, more immigrants returned to Mexico than came north.

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