Global Economics

The Immigration Payoff


Living south of the U.S. border can be a surreal experience. When I was in Tijuana recently trying to navigate a poorly marked main artery to return a rental car, I suddenly realized I was on the wrong side of the four-lane highway, heading toward San Diego instead of toward the Tijuana airport. Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, I'd take at least an hour to get through the U.S. immigration checkpoint to turn around and come back to Mexico. I'd miss my flight.

Desperate, I motioned to one of the dozens of street vendors swarming around the idling cars. "Is there a turnaround lane for people who're stuck here by mistake?" I asked. "No, you're out of luck," he said, lugging a 3-foot crucifix and leopard-print blanket for sale.

But a few minutes later, he came running back. "You're in luck!" he shouted. "There's a place up here where there's no fence and the curb is broken and you can do a U-turn."

STEADY FLOW. I won't say here whether I bent the traffic rules, but it occurred to me that the poorly designed border entrance is similar to our broken U.S. immigration policy. The U.S. doesn't have a sensible way to deal with the need for a steady flow of reliable workers to do jobs our citizens are no longer interested in performing.

As a result, millions of good, hard-working people end up breaking the law. And it's not just illegal immigrants who do so but also Americans whose businesses would fail without that willing workforce. We have a legal and ethical bottleneck that must be addressed -- quickly.

For months the public debate has been dominated by anti-immigration forces who correctly note that the border is leaky but demand an enforcement-only approach. But when the Senate recently began considering compromise legislation that would allow millions of illegal migrants to start on the path toward citizenship and create a temporary workers' program, the tone of the debate changed dramatically (see BW Online, 3/31/06, "A Future with Open Borders").

CAPTURE THE VOTE. More than a million immigrants -- some in the U.S. legally, some not -- began marching peacefully in dozens of cities across the U.S., waving American flags and urging legislators to allow an estimated 12 million people, more than half of them Mexicans, to emerge from legal limbo. Their actions are not going unnoticed by politicians of both parties eager to capture the vote of the fast-growing Hispanic population, the country's largest minority (see BW Online, 03/31/06, "In Georgia, Immigration Is No Peach").

Mexicans back home are watching with some amazement as their compatriots assert themselves politically. "I think all of us were taken by surprise by the size and impact of the marches," says Mexican political scientist Sergio Aguayo.

Yet seeing the protesters also filled him with a sense of sorrow. "The migrants may have an emotional and cultural attachment to Mexico, but we're realizing that many of our most hard-working citizens are gone for good," he says. "They want to stay in the U.S. because they feel they can develop their potential better there."

DEAD END. Indeed, for decades the Mexican government has failed to create the proper conditions for solid economic growth. While NAFTA boosted export manufacturing, there aren't enough jobs for the millions who didn't complete high school.

Authorities have implemented an ambitious scholarship program to keep 5 million poor kids in school, which will make a difference in the future. But for now, many must take dead-end jobs with no fringe benefits in Mexico's informal economy, or cross the border, as about 400,000 are doing annually.

Primitivo Rodríguez, a historian who works to defend the political rights of Mexicans living abroad, is disturbed by the toll migration has taken on Mexico (see BW Online, 03/10/06, "The Fox in Winter"). In many rural towns, the only inhabitants left are small children and the elderly.

"Migration has been one of the biggest disgraces to hit Mexico," he says. "The continuing exodus has caused the disintegration of whole families and communities."

BANK ACCOUNTS. There are many who believe both the U.S. and Mexico would benefit from a change in the laws. Carlos Olamendi, 49, is a Mexican-born restaurateur and entrepreneur in California who 27 years ago overstayed a tourist visa and became a U.S. citizen in 1986 thanks to an amnesty. A prominent Republican, he lobbies tirelessly for immigration reform. "Legalizing the migrants who are already established here would revitalize the economies of the U.S. and Latin America," says Olamendi.

Migrants would pay more taxes, open bank accounts, and sign up for auto loans, home mortgages, and insurance, he says. Airlines would benefit as migrants would be free to fly back and forth rather than trek through the rattlesnake-infested scrub and desert of the border.

And Mexico would benefit as migrants in the U.S. invest in the hometowns they left behind. Olamendi and 34 other immigrants in New York, Texas, and California created a $3.5 million investment fund to boost businesses in their home state of Puebla.

Building greenhouses and warehouses, they're helping farmers package traditional Mexican foods for export to the U.S. under the "Cinco de Mayo" brand -- to be launched in Los Angeles on May 5th, the Mexican holiday that is celebrated more among nostalgic U.S. Hispanics than it is south of the border.

NIGHT CLASSES. Certainly, Mexico's government must do more by investing in job-creating regional infrastructure projects and by reducing the red tape and corruption that prompted many frustrated Mexicans to abandon their country. But the private sector is likely to forge the way. "There is a lot of entrepreneurial energy among the migrants, and they want to help create jobs by investing in both countries," says Olamendi.

That's good news for the Mexicans who prefer to stay in their own country. Graciel Barraza, who works at the Sharp TV factory in Rosarito, just south of Tijuana, is a 27-year-old father of two. He moved to Rosarito from Sinaloa state seven years ago intending to migrate to the U.S.

But he found a good job -- he's in charge of recycling at the huge export facility -- as well as a boss who encouraged him to enroll in night classes for a university degree in business administration. "My future is here," Barraza says. "I have no desire to leave my country anymore."

For every person like Barraza, though, there are a dozen less-educated but equally resourceful Mexicans who have managed to establish lives in the U.S. and are contributing to the American economy. For them, legalization is the best solution.

Go ahead and make them pay a hefty fine for having broken the law. Introduce tamper-proof worker ID cards to prove who's legal and who's not. We need an immigration program that recognizes, rather than hypocritically ignores, the fact that the U.S. needs a steady supply of workers to do the backbreaking tasks few others are willing to do.

If the U.S. Congress has the vision to accomplish that, then at least the migrants will have a clearly marked, legal path that they can pursue. Then we can concentrate on patrolling the southern border to keep out the real enemy -- terrorists.


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