No Great Wall for Mexico
The U.S. should stress workplace enforcement of immigration laws instead of constructing barricades along the Mexican border. Pro or con?
Pro: Physical Obstacles Don’t Work
The U.S. experiment with border-focused immigration control has been an egregious failure. Upward of $25 billion has been spent on border fortification since 1993, but we have little to show for it beyond photo ops for anti-immigration politicians.
As reported in my book Impacts of Border Enforcement on Mexican Migration (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007), interviews with undocumented Mexican migrants show that the U.S. Border Patrol apprehends only about one third of illegal immigrants on a given trip to the border, and of those, more than nine out of ten get through on their second or third try. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the country’s southwestern border have been declining since mid-2006, but that is mainly a consequence of our economic downturn and the fact that undocumented migrants are being bottled up within the U.S.
People-smugglers’ fees have more than tripled as tougher U.S. border enforcement has increased the demand for their services. Since 1995, some 5,000 migrants avoiding urban fortifications have perished as they attempted to enter through remote deserts. By making it more costly and risky for migrants to come and go across the border, U.S. policy has created powerful incentives for them to stay put once they succeed in entering. Families are therefore being reunified in the U.S., which means greater state and local government outlays for education and health services.
Migrants would not embark on life-threatening journeys if they were not virtually certain that a job awaited them on the other side of our fortified border. Most do not leave home without a pre-arranged U.S. job.
The average employer runs a higher risk of being killed by lightning than of being prosecuted for hiring undocumented immigrants. But a systematic, aggressive, work-site enforcement effort, coupled with a mandatory electronic employment eligibility verification system, is the only sure way to deter illegal immigration.
Work-site enforcement is not a panacea. Some hiring will be driven further underground, while black-market employers faced with higher risks will compensate by paying lower wages. But barring the workplace door is clearly a more humane and cost-effective approach than trying to stop migrants at the border.
Con: Prevent and Remedy
Using workplace enforcement of U.S. immigration laws alone is akin to contending with the consequences of broken levees in New Orleans rather than trying to maintain those levees. We must enforce immigration laws at the work site and also build and maintain a strong border fence if we are ever to succeed in reducing illegal immigration to the U.S.
The estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. constitute an all-time high in U.S. immigration history. And that number is increasing by another estimated 500,000 every year. This population competes for jobs with, and holds down the wages of, U.S. workers, while putting enormous pressures on our public schools, health care and criminal justice systems, and the environment. Illegal immigration makes a mockery of the most generous legal immigration system in the world, which admits each year to the U.S. more legal immigrants with a clear path to citizenship than the rest of the nations of the world combined.
There’s no silver bullet that can solve illegal immigration. At this moment, people in many countries are doing cost-benefit analyses to decide whether or not to pay a coyote, snakehead, or any other type of smuggler to get them into the U.S. If we are to defend our system of generous but limited legal immigration to the U.S. from being overwhelmed by additional millions of illegal immigrants, we have to tilt the balance of their cost-benefit analysis to "no."
We need to visibly enforce immigration laws at the work site and apply sanctions against employers who knowingly employ illegal workers. But we also need the physical deterrent of a strong visible border fence, patrolled and maintained by a professionally trained and adequately funded and staffed Border Patrol.
No fence is perfect, and a border fence doesn’t have to be in order to justify the investment. Any reduction in illegal border crossing is significant, because it’s always cheaper to prevent violations of law than to pursue, process, and prosecute after the fact.
Congress has already authorized and appropriated funds for the construction of border fencing. Let’s get it built!Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek.com Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.