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

None of this means giving up on border control, especially if it's focused on drugs and other criminal activities. But if the objective is to reduce the attraction of U.S. jobs for undocumented workers -- about a third to half of whom, in any case, have overstayed their visas, not crossed the border illegally -- it requires different strategies.

In the past year, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has conducted "silent raids" -- auditing farms and businesses to check employee records and then, using the threat of large fines, forcing them to fire illegal immigrants. But given the dependence of tens of thousands of employers on such workers -- about 60 percent of U.S. farm workers are believed to be undocumented -- it's hard to imagine that quiet raids will be enough to drive out many of those 11 million illegal immigrants.

Probably the most promising workplace strategy, which has hardly been tried, would be far more rigorous enforcement of labor laws on wages, hours and overtime, and of worker safety laws. That would sharply reduce employer incentives to hire and exploit illegal immigrants. In a small step in that direction this summer, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis moved to crack down on the employment of young children in agriculture. But that's barely a start.

For the long term, immigration scholars such as Robert Pastor of American University argue that in order to deter illegal immigration we should shift funding from ever-tighter border control to collaborative efforts to bolster Mexican infrastructure and economic development. He cites the economic aid the European Union provided to Spain and Portugal when it admitted those countries in 1986: This aid seems to have effectively reversed the flow of immigrants from those nations to the rest of Western Europe.

The best way to pursue such a strategy, Pastor argues, would be to create something he calls "the North American Community." This body, which would include Canada, the United States and Mexico, would manage a range of matters, from crime control, drugs and continental security to transportation, the environment and labor.

But for the millions who cross between the United States and Mexico every day to work, study and shop, and for those involved in thousands of joint commercial and cultural institutions, the border is already more a region than a line. Thus, in many ways what Pastor proposes via formal institutions already exists on the ground.

"Our two largest trading partners are not England and China," he pointed out in 2007, "but Canada and Mexico. The two largest sources of energy imports are not Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, but Canada and Mexico. . . . There are roughly 500 million legal crossings of both borders each year, and the preferred tourist destination of Canadians, Mexicans and Americans is their neighbors in North America."

Given the world's integrated economy, and the rapidly changing nature of, and constraints on, the nation-state -- think terrorism, or the flow of illegal drugs, or the regulation of multinational corporations, or the Internet, or pollution -- no wall, moat or border patrol will be large or wide or deep enough to fully stop the flow of immigrants.

Trying to tightly seal any border will almost inevitably bring unintended consequences -- in reluctant illegal residents, in increased offshoring of industry and jobs, in cross-border smuggling and crime or, as with Arizona's new immigration law, in a whole new set of foreign policy problems.

"Show me a 50-foot wall," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said when she was governor of Arizona, "and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder."

Peter Schrag is the author of "Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America."

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