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Commentary

An Immoral Policy on Illegal Entry

June 08, 2003|Wayne A. Cornelius | Wayne A. Cornelius is director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego and co-author of the forthcoming "Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective," 2nd edition (Stanford University Press).

At 120 deaths and counting, we are on track to reach a record number of migrant fatalities this year along the U.S.-Mexican border. The killing grounds -- the mountains of east San Diego County, the deserts and irrigation canals of California and Arizona, the railroad yards and truck stops of Texas -- have yielded 2,355 victims since 1995, and the bodies of hundreds of others undoubtedly await discovery. But so far, the wrong lessons are being learned from these tragedies:

* Professional people smugglers are to blame: The abuses committed by some smugglers are unconscionable. But even more migrants would be dying if smugglers were not guiding them. The 1993 U.S. buildup in border enforcement has made smugglers indispensable, creating a billion-dollar industry.

* Greater investments in manpower and equipment for rescuing migrants will shrink the death toll. The Border Patrol's search-and-rescue operations clearly save lives. Last year, 1,770 people were rescued, but migrants were still dying at a rate of at least one a day. The vast expanses of hellish terrain that migrants must now cross cannot be patrolled adequately.

* Migrants don't realize the dangers they face and just need to be educated. Surveys of apprehended migrants returned to Mexico have found that most were aware of the physical risks of today's clandestine entry routes. No amount of public service announcements in the Mexican media about the dangers of illegal crossings will dissuade economically desperate migrants from trying.

* If we make it sufficiently costly and dangerous to enter clandestinely, at some point migrants will be deterred. U.S. officials assumed that after gaining control of the four corridors through which 70% to 80% of undocumented migrants traditionally passed (metro San Diego; central Arizona; El Paso, Texas; the south Rio Grande Valley), geography would do the rest. It never occurred to INS planners that migrants would spend days trying to cross a mountain range or a desert in freezing or triple-digit temperatures.

The obvious -- if politically inconvenient -- lesson is that no strategy that focuses on supply reduction at the border can effectively deter illegal entries. Only demand reduction, such as cracking down systematically on U.S. employers who hire undocumented migrants, can reduce the flow and associated deaths.

Since the late 1990s, with Congress' blessing, work site enforcement has accounted for less than 2% of the U.S. immigration enforcement effort. Last year, 9,500 Border Patrol agents were deployed on the border, while about 300 officers were conducting employer investigations.

Employer penalties alone, however, will not do the job. If business owners were seriously threatened with being fined or jailed for employing unauthorized migrants, much of the hiring would just be driven underground, and migrants would suffer greater exploitation. Moreover, the U.S. Congress is unlikely to go along with more stringent enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace. Nor has it shown any appetite for a nationwide system for verifying employment eligibility.

In the long run, only a concerted, well-funded effort by the U.S. and Mexican governments to create economically attractive alternatives is likely to reduce illegal immigration appreciably. But thus far, neither the U.S. nor the Mexican government has shown any serious interest in such an approach.

Meanwhile, the population of undocumented migrants living and working in the United States continues to expand by an estimated 500,000 per year. We are unwilling to pay the price of significant demand-reduction efforts on the U.S. side and supply reduction in Mexico, but maintaining the status quo in border enforcement is an immoral and ineffective policy.

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