U.S.-Mexico Border Woes

U.S.-Mexico Border Woes

As U.S. public opinion increasingly favors stronger immigration controls, the Senate considers a bill that would impose harsh penalties on illegal immigrants. The U.S.-Mexican relationship has suffered as a result.

February 21, 2006 11:32 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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The U.S. economy depends on unskilled labor in dozens of industries, including agriculture, construction, the hospitality industry, and child care. For these jobs, the United States relies heavily on the ten to eleven million illegal immigrants currently in the country. A majority of this population is from Mexico, and more migrants make the dangerous border crossing each year. As attention focuses on border control, the Senate is considering a bill that would make it a crime to employ or aid an illegal immigrant. Advocates for stronger border controls say the country must stop the flow of illegal immigration. Business and human rights advocates argue that the increasingly tough measures are expensive, counterproductive, and inhumane. The issue is also raising tensions between the United States and Mexico, an important ally to the south facing its own presidential elections in July.

What’s the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border?

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Since 2000, when Mexican President Vincente Fox took office, nearly two million Mexicans have emigrated, both legally and illegally. Most of them go to the United States. Some 575,000 Mexican-born people joined the U.S. population from 2000 to 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Of that number, only 90,000 entered legally. In 2004, Mexicans overseas pumped $22.2 billion in remittances back to the Mexican economy.

But the economic activity has a price: Each year, roughly 400 people die during unauthorized border crossings, according to Mexican officials: 431 in 2004 and 373 in 2004. Most die of thirst or exposure to the elements on the dangerous journey. Some 46 percent of unauthorized migrants to the United States are women and children. And, as the United States increases border patrols, more Mexicans are turning to people-smugglers, or "coyotes," and paying increasingly higher fees to be taken across the border. The increased traffic—and a thriving drug trade by Mexican criminal syndicates—has led to a spike in violence along the border. Border patrol agents have been attacked more than 190 times since October 2005, according to a story in the New York Times.

What steps are being taken by Congress?

The Senate is currently considering immigration legislation that would take strong steps aimed at halting illegal immigration. Among the proposals:

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  • Building a fence along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border;
  • Imposing stricter penalties on employers of illegal workers;
  • Making it a felony to be an undocumented worker; and
  • Making it a crime for humanitarian groups to help illegal immigrants.

The Senate legislation needs to be reconciled with a separate immigration bill that includes the measures mentioned above and was already passed by the House in the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (HR 4437).

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Is the Senate expected to pass the House version of the bill?

Experts say no. The Senate will consider the House version the week of March 4 and bring it up for debate by the end of the month. But "the Senate is likely to pass a very different bill from the House version," says Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. The Senate version of the bill may include provisions for a guest worker program and some kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants already here, ideas supported by President Bush and influential Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA). But it will be hard to reconcile the contrasting priorities of the House and Senate. "There’s a very strong law-and-order ’nativist’ element in the House" represented by Rep. Tom Tancredo, (R-CO), says Julia Sweig, director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Extreme views that don’t reflect the majority of Americans are becoming more accepted. The president’s own initiatives on immigration have gotten pushed back by the hardliners in his party," she says.

What is likely to result from the Senate deliberation?

Either a milder version of the House bill, or— if the two chambers are unable to agree in committee—no legislation at all. Experts say the politicization of the debate has made any productive action very difficult. "It’s unfortunate the debate [in Congress] has become so narrowly focused on border enforcement that it’s no longer effective," says Deborah Meyers, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "The debate is so polarized that it’s hard to ask the real question of how to address U.S. labor needs, and what role Mexico should play in that." Camarota agrees that the tenor of the debate is not high. "In this climate, it’s very hard to have a coherent discourse, much less a coherent policy," he says.

Experts also say the Republican leadership, which favors amnesty and guest worker programs, is increasingly out of step with its rank-and-file members, who reflect public opinion that is increasingly against immigration. "The House Republicans are afraid that if they don’t enact immigration protection, they’ll be hurt in the [upcoming] elections," Camarota says.

What role does border protection play in the recent federal budget?

Bush asked for a nearly 6 percent increase for Homeland Security in his budget for fiscal year 2007. This includes $459 million more for the border patrol to hire 1,500 new agents, raising the total to 14,000. The budget also calls for $100 million to be spent on cameras, sensors, and other surveillance technology, and $410 million to add nearly 7,000 beds for detainees. (When illegal immigrants are caught, many are released again—within the United States—until their court dates because of a shortage of detainment beds. Seventy percent of those released do not show up for their court dates.)

But Camarota and other advocates of stronger immigration control say these measures are ineffective without a stronger commitment to enforcing existing internal U.S. laws. "What typically has happened is we have a seemingly tough policy on the books, but the administration is committed to a policy of non-enforcement," he says. He points out the 14,000 Border Patrol agents have to try to seal a border 2,000 miles long, a nearly impossible task. "We spend as much defending the Iraqi border as [we do defending] our own," he says.

"We spend as much defending the Iraqi border as [we do defending] our own," Camarota says.

Does increased investment in border enforcement reduce illegal immigration?

Not really. Experts say that over the last two decades, funds invested in border control and measures to limit illegal immigration—by doubling the size of the border patrol, increasing penalties for smuggling people, and making it easier to deport false asylum seekers, among other steps—have skyrocketed. But the number of illegal immigrants is still increasing. In 1986, there were about two and a half million illegal immigrants in the United States, says Meyers. In 2005, there were about 10.3 million undocumented workers in the United States -- and about 57 percent of those were Mexicans, says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

A study done by Wayne Cornelius, a political science professor and director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, showed that stronger border controls have either "no statistically significant effect" on the propensity to migrate, or actually encourage migrants to stay in the United States longer. Cornelius found that, among the Mexicans surveyed in his study, 37 percent stayed in the United States longer than they had planned to because of the new regulations, and 79 percent knew someone who remained in the United States because of stronger border controls.

Experts say that ultimately, stricter border controls and higher penalties will not stop illegal immigration because they don’t address the root causes of the problem: a stagnant Mexican economy and strong demand for cheap labor in the U.S. market. "I don’t think it will be a deterrent," Sweig says. "If you pass laws you can’t enforce, you [just] encourage lawlessness."

What is the rationale for this approach to halting immigration?

Advocates of the stricter policies say they address the problem by enforcing U.S. laws—arresting, prosecuting, and deporting illegal aliens—and expanding the legal verification of immigration status to more workplaces. The goal is "to make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible to live here illegally" and prompt illegal immigrants to go home on their own, writes Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in a report, Downsizing Illegal Immigration: A Strategy of Attrition Through Enforcement. This way, the United States can reduce the total number of illegal immigrants living in America to "a manageable nuisance, rather than today’s crisis," he writes.

How has the border issue affected U.S. relations with Mexico?

The relationship has been in a downward spiral over the last six years, experts say. When Fox and Bush came to power in 2000, better relations between the two countries were high on the priority lists of both leaders. But after 9/11, the United States shifted its focus to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East, and Mexico was pushed down the list. At the same time, a strong current of anti-immigrant feeling in America focused on Mexico, illegal immigration, and border issues. Mexicans accounted for 91 percent of all apprehensions of illegal immigrants and 74 percent of all formal removals of immigrants in 2003, according to the Migration Information Center.

As a result, the health of the relationship between the two countries "was ceded to the hardliners" in the United States, Sweig says. The Mexican reformers who argued that closer ties with the United States would be good for Mexico "now have mud on their faces," she says. As Mexico prepares for a presidential election in July, the immigration issue will likely boost the nationalism of all the candidates and foster the strong current of traditional anti-Americanism in Mexico, Sweig says.

How is the issue viewed in Latin America?

U.S. immigration policy is viewed negatively in Latin America, Sweig says. "The wall [proposed in the current legislation] is a symbol of the souring of U.S.-Latin American relations over the last few years," Sweig says. Eleven Latin American foreign ministers met in Cartagena, Colombia, February 13 to discuss ways to protest U.S. plans to build the border wall and lobby Congress to defeat HR 4437. Latin American countries, most of which have significant populations of nationals working in the United States, are arguing for guest-worker programs and the legalization of undocumented migrants to the United States.

But Latin American countries also have a massive stake in keeping immigration to the United States open. Allowing citizens to emigrate to the United States gives Latin American societies a release valve for their own social ills: high unemployment, barely functional governments, and massive income inequality. "Overwhelmingly, the case in Latin America is that the lack of a social contract makes societies dysfunctional and ineffective," Sweig says. "There are huge problems of governance and development because of a lack of investment by the elites in their own economies. People are driven away." Sweig discusses these issues in her forthcoming book, Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century.

"Overwhelmingly, the case in Latin America is that the lack of a social contract makes societies dysfunctional and ineffective," Sweig says.

What would be an effective way to address the problem?

Most experts agree that immigrants, particularly illegal ones, play a role in keeping the U.S. economy afloat. "Illegal immigrants pay Social Security [taxes]," Sweig says. "The contribution to our society of people who come here is very significant." The remittances sent home by legal and illegal immigrants to the United States—some $35 billion per year, Sweig says—is a stabilizing influence in dozens of societies around the world. And the U.S. economy depends on their labor. "We need immigration for the sake of American competitiveness," Selee says. "But we also need rules to let it happen in a legal, regulated, above-board way." He and other experts suggest an array of ways to deal with the immigration issue, including:

  • Expanding the channels of legal immigration. This could include exempting spouses and children of applicants from green card quotas, and expanding the percentage of visas Mexico is allotted each year.
  • Legalizing people who are already here. This could be done with some kind of amnesty or fast-track legalization program. Alexander Aleinikoff writes in the June 2005 issue of the U.S.-Mexico Policy Bulletin (PDF) that we should recognize there is already an integrated labor market between the United States and Mexico and regulate it for the benefit of both sides.
  • Enforcing workforce restrictions against hiring illegal aliens. Only three employers were cited for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants in 2004, Camarota says. "Right now the United States has failed to take even the most elementary steps to deter illegal immigration," he says.
  • Making it possible for workers to enter, work, and then leave. This sort of "circular migration" would allow Mexicans to fill seasonal labor jobs in the United States, but return home to Mexico to live. "People come and go. They’re not coming to stay forever," Sweig says. "Many invest at home so they can retire there." This goal could possibly be accomplished under a temporary worker or guest worker program.
  • Developing Mexico’s society and economy. If Mexicans have more and better work opportunities at home, fewer of them would be compelled to come to the United States, Meyers says.

These and other recommendations are being considered in an upcoming task force report on immigration by the Wilson Center and the Migration Policy Institute. Overall, experts say many options have to be considered to find an effective method of dealing with illegal immigration. "We know in the history of the United States, people have come to stay," Selee says. "We need to get back into thinking of how people come to this country and become fully integrated members of American society."


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