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THINKING OUT LOUD: IMMIGRATION

A 'free market' includes labor

July 31, 2005|Douglas S. Massey | Douglas S. Massey is a professor of sociology and public policy at Princeton University.

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of U.S. relations with Mexico. Together, our nations have created an integrated market characterized by the relatively free flow of capital, goods, services and information across our borders. Since 1986, the volume of trade with Mexico has increased eightfold. But we also have sought, since 1986, to block the movement of workers by criminalizing the hiring of undocumented laborers. The size of the Border Patrol has tripled, and its budget has risen tenfold.

A change in the rate of undocumented Mexican migration did not prompt this escalation of border enforcement. Rather, it was the attempt by U.S. policymakers to finesse the contradiction created by integrating all markets except labor. The result is that migration has continued under terms harmful to the U.S., damaging to Mexico, injurious to U.S. workers and inhumane to migrants.

The militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border has not increased the rate of arrest. Rather, it has reduced the probability of catching migrants to a 40-year low by channeling them to remote areas where their chances of capture are very small. . At remote border locations, however, the risk of death is greater. The mortality rate has tripled; 300 to 400 migrants die annually.

U.S. efforts have failed to discourage undocumented migrants from coming -- and have kept migrants here from going home. Reluctant to again face the gantlet at the border, they ask family members to join them. The result has been an unprecedented increase in the size of the undocumented population in the U.S.

By 2000, what had been a circular flow of able-bodied workers into three states became a settled population of families scattered across 50 states, at a significant increase in the social costs of migration for U.S. taxpayers. The criminalization of undocumented hiring inadvertently exacerbated the economic costs to U.S. workers. Rather than eliminate the magnet of U.S. jobs, this policy has encouraged employers to shift from direct hiring to subcontracting. Intermediaries now handle the paperwork burden and absorb the risks of prosecution. In return, these subcontractors pocket a portion of the wages that formerly went to migrants, thereby lowering the wages of all workers. In this new regime, everyone works through a subcontractor, undermining the bargaining advantage once enjoyed by U.S. citizens and legal resident aliens.

All we have to show for two decades of contradictory policies toward Mexico is a negligible deterrent effect, a rising pile of corpses, record low probabilities of border apprehension, falling rates of return migration, accelerating growth of the undocumented population, downward pressure on U.S. wages and working conditions -- and billions of dollars in wasted money.

Ever more repressive actions to block migratory flows caused by Mexico's economic transformation and integration into a North American market won't work. A better approach would be to decriminalize labor flows and manage them to the benefit of both nations. Here's how:

* Create a temporary visa program that gives migrants rights to live in the U.S. and allows their return home.

* Expand the quota for legal immigration from Mexico, a country with a $1-trillion economy and a population of 105 million to which we are bound by history, geography and a free trade agreement.

* Offer amnesty to the children of undocumented migrants who entered the U.S. as minors and are guilty of nothing more than obeying their parents.

* Establish an earned-legalization program for those who illegally entered the U.S. as adults.

These actions would go a long way toward cleaning up the current immigration mess. They would enable the United States to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of Mexican migration. They would allow the Mexican economy to develop more quickly and the Mexican government to address the forces promoting large-scale emigration.

Legislation sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)and John McCain (R-Ariz.) incorporates these actions. Its enactment would be a big step toward much-needed immigration reform.

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