The Mexican Border:
Is there a Problem?
What is Perceived as the Problem?
Why is there a Problem?
What Can be done?
What Should be done?
Is there a Problem?
The US currently has an immigration of over 10 million persons per year. About 500 thousand are from Mexico: Some of these have visas; others do not. The ones without visas are considered "illegal" and subject to deportation. This is a description of a situation; not necessarily a problem. The situation becomes a problem only in the eyes of an individual.
What is perceived as the Problem?
People perceive the entrance of illegal immigrants as very different problems. The most common perceptions include some mixture of:
- Potential criminal activity
- Competition for jobs including wage reduction
- Utilization of social services
- Concurrent drug trafficking
- Concurrent terrorist entrance
- Spread of slums
- Lack of respect for immigration policies
Perception is not necessarily reality. I have not seen any studies that indicate illegal immigrants commit more or worse crimes than legal immigrants or native born Americans.
Competition for jobs is real but only for the lowest paying jobs. The wages available to illegal immigrants is much too low to interest most Americans.
Utilization of social services is probably the highest impact that illegal immigrants have on the American economy, but only because taxes are usually not collected on their wages.
Drug trafficking and terrorist movements are problems separate from illegal migrants. Even if they could be eliminated completely, illegal immigration would continue at the current level. Similarly, elimination illegal immigration would not necessarily affect drug trafficking or terrorist movement, particularly. since it is much easier for a terrorist to enter through Canada or even New York.
The lowest income groups occupy the slums. If all illegal Mexican migrants were deported, some other group would have to perform the marginal jobs and occupy the slums. The only solution for eliminating slums is to raise the standard of living so that all people can afford reasonable housing. I doubt that this can ever be achieved.
Why should migrants respect an arbitrary immigration policy that limits their access to jobs, particularly when potential employers want them? They certainly do not see any ethical considerations in violating the immigration regulations.
Why is there a Problem?
Why do Mexicans enter the US illegally? This question can be answered by a single word: Poverty! The table below is extracted from the CIA Factbook. Forty percent of Mexicans live below the poverty line compared to 12% in the US. But it is not the same poverty line. The US poverty line corresponds to extremely good income in Mexico. At about $24,00, it is almost twice the average income in Mexico. Most illegal immigrants are from the lowest income group in Mexico. A Mexican migrant earning minimum wage in the US can send half of his income to his family in Mexico and still live better than he could in Mexico. Thus, the US is an irresistible attraction for illegal as well as legal immigrants; and will continue to be unless economic conditions improve in Mexico.
What can be done?
There are an unlimited number of options to "solve the border problem." Here is a list that I believe represents the spectrum of options. The options are, in general, progressive; each option is more restrictive on migrants than the lower numbered ones.
- Completely open border
- Special status for temporary migrants
- Amnesty for migrants after a few years
- Maintain current policies
- Increase border guards
- Construct a wall along full border
- Convince Mexico to restrict emigration
- Create a special trade zone along border
- Supplement border guards with military
- Full militarization of the border
- Use of lethal force to stop migrants
The first option would greatly increase immigration until the economic situation improves in Mexico. The next two would legalize immigrant status. Coupled with minimum wage and tax enforcement, this could reduce the impact on social services while reducing the number of immigrants. They would also guarantee basic rights to the migrants. Either option 2 or 3 would be better than the current policies.
Increasing border guards and constructing a wall along the entire border could possibly reduce the number of illegal immigrants. But the critical question must be addressed: How much is needed to reduce illegal immigration to a given level (50%, 25%, 10%, 5%)? I suspect that the cost necessary to reduce illegal immigration to below 50% of the current level would be prohibitive. The Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall were ultimately failures. A Great Wall for Mexico would likely also be a failure. All three walls were intended to restrict movement across a border; China and Mexico to prevent entry into a country and Berlin to prevent exit from a country.
Mexico has a high birth rate, low employment opportunity, and weak economy. It has no economic advantage
in limiting emigration. Actually its best economic strategy is to export people, as many as
possible. (This is something that I can greatly appreciate: I was "exported" from the remotest
region of Appalachia many years ago.) Possibly Mexico could be influenced by
a massive aid program (i.e., bribe) or fear of military action, but never freely.
Also, for Mexico to restrict emigration would be a violation of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."
A special economic zone along the border has been treated fictionally as the Montezuma Strip. The strip would be an area along the border that is neither US nor Mexican, but a hybrid with special tax incentives and labor laws. The strip would probably have better economic conditions than Mexico but not as good as the US. Illegal immigrants headed for the US would have to cross two borders. Many would probably prefer to legally stay in the strip. Perhaps it is time to consider a radical option such as this.
A possible variation on the Montezuma Strip is to create US retirement villages in Mexico. This would simultaneously provide low cost retirement options for Americans and employment opportunity near their homes for Mexicans. To gain the trust of potential occupants, special provisions for security and medical services might be necessary. In any case, special legal status for the occupants would be necessary; neither Mexican citizens not tourists.
The final three options represent increasing militarization the border. While no one is currently seriously advocating lethal force, the potential would exist. Partial militarization would probably be no more effective than the border guards, thus failing to seriously limit illegal immigration. Probably this would be interpreted as need for increased militarization, eventually culminating in a lethal force option.
What should be done?
I have mixed feelings about any solution that I can imagine. No solution can eliminate the perception of a problem by all people. Militarization has very dangerous potentials, including escalating to a war with Mexico. Vigilante operations by armed volunteers are almost as dangerous; eventually a migrant will be killed which would have major diplomatic repercussions. A moderate increase in border security is reasonable, but will likely not substantially reduce illegal immigration. Legalizing the status of current illegal immigrants is desirable, but I am unsure of any status that would satisfy many people. Possibly amnesty coupled to some commitment by the immigrants could be developed. The likely commitment is military enlistment or an equivalent civilian service program.
The only long term solution that I can see is improving the economic conditions in Mexico. That will probably require an aggressive birth control policy as well as major investment. Some variation on the Montezuma Strip may be feasible. In any case, the solution will be slow, painful and unsatisfying for many people. Any attempt at a quick fix will probably make the situation worse.
|Age structure||0-14 years||29.6%||20.1%|
|65 years and over||6.1%||12.7%|
|Population growth rate||1.14%||0.883%|
|Birth rate||births/1,000 population||20.04||14.18|
|Death rate||deaths/1,000 population||4.78||8.27|
|Net migration rate||migrant(s)/1,000 population||-3.84||2.92|
|Infant mortality rate||deaths/1,000 live births||19.01||6.3|
|Life expectancy at birth||75.84||78.14|
|Total fertility rate||children born/woman||2.37||2.1|
|GDP||purchasing power parity||$1.353 trillion||$13.86 trillion|
|real growth rate||3%||2.2%|
|GDP - Personal||purchasing power parity||$12,500||$46,100|
|Public debt||of GDP||23.1%||36.8%|
|Population below poverty line||40%||12%|
|Inflation rate||consumer prices||3.8%||2.7%|
|Labor force||45.38 million||153.1 million|
|Unemployment rate||3.7% *||4.6%|
|* plus underemployment of 25%|
Updated May 2008
© Copyright 2005-2017 D E Pauley