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End Border Hysteria and Move On

A binational study finds a relatively low number of Mexican migrants here illegally and predicts a sharp ebb.

September 14, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

When it comes to the carefully measured use of language, academic researchers are outdone only by diplomats. So you can just imagine the cautious language of a document written by both.

The "Binational Study of Migration Between Mexico and the United States" is just such a report, right down to its aptly bureaucratic title. Yet it comes to conclusions that are sure to be be controversial. Still, any controversy that this calm, deliberately written study stirs up will be less a reflection of the research itself than of how immigration has been turned into a "hot button" issue by political demagogues.

In California and the rest of the Southwest, the focus of anti-immigrant rhetoric is the generations-old migration of Mexican workers into this country. Three years ago, to help calm an increasingly hysterical debate, the U.S. and Mexican governments commissioned 20 migration experts (10 from each country) to conduct an independent, collaborative survey of the current state of that historic flow.

The Mexican side of the survey was overseen by that country's foreign ministry. The U.S. research was authorized by the Commission on Immigration Reform, a nine-member body that advises Congress on immigration issues. Formerly headed by Barbara Jordan, the late congresswoman from Texas, the commission is now headed by former Education Secretary Shirley Hufstedler, a prominent Los Angeles attorney. The binational study is only the latest admirable effort by the Jordan/Hufstedler commission to bring reasoned discourse to an emotionally charged issue.

The study's results were made public earlier this month, and most news reports focused on a finding that the number of Mexicans living illegally in this country is smaller than has been widely assumed. Using U.S. and Mexican census data and related statistics, researchers estimate that roughly 105,000 Mexicans have settled illegally in this country each year since 1990, far fewer than the millions claimed by anti-immigrant politicians like Pat Buchanan.

But to my way of thinking, the bi-national study's most important conclusion focuses on the future flow of migrants from Mexico al norte. It points to a far more optimistic scenario than most Americans might expect.

"There is reason to believe," the report states, "that the currently high levels of migration may represent a 'hump' or peak. . . . Within the next decade, changes in Mexican demographics and other structural changes should begin to reduce emigration pressures."

First, the researchers conclude that the "push factors" that send Mexicans abroad looking for work are weakening. The cohort in the Mexican population most likely to migrate, workers between 15 and 44 years old, will decline from 1.05 million in 1996 to 430,000 by 2010. The ambitious economic liberalization Mexico began in 1990 will produce the jobs to keep those workers at home, if the nation achieves its economic goal of a 5% annual growth rate. Even with a growth rate of 3% (the figure the study used) almost 800,000 new jobs will be generated by 2005.

The researchers also assume the "pull factors" in the U.S. economy that lure foreign workers here will weaken due to a recent increase in minimum wages that should make some menial jobs more attractive to U.S. citizens and an "increased supply of low-skilled U.S. residents shifted out of welfare programs."

The study's authors are exceedingly cautious in suggesting future policies. They suggest that "the study findings argue for increased dialogue and forward-looking consultative mechanisms to facilitate bilateral cooperation in finding mutually beneficial solutions to unauthorized migration."

Fine. But let me put in my own, admittedly undiplomatic words what we should get out of this fine study:

We got ourselves all worked up over a problem that pretty much is solving itself, which is what usually happens when human nature and the free market are allowed to operate unfettered by government-imposed controls. We may not be over the demographic hump yet, but we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Since our most notorious immigration challenge soon will be eased, Congress must not overreact to short-term border problems by taking the harsh steps put forward as "solutions" by political charlatans like Buchanan. That would include further militarizing our borders and barring the children of illegal immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens.

Once Congress looks beyond the Mexican border, it can focus on long-term immigration challenges. The Jordan/Hufstedler commission has already pointed to some, such as ensuring that the foreigners we will want and need--investors, inventors, artists and the like--can immigrate with a minimum of hassle. For if the binational study and the other thoughtful research the commission has overseen are a guide, we can count on remaining a "nation of immigrants" well into the next century.

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