Closed-Door Policy

At the dawn of the 21st century, the United States offers a contradictory model of global economic openness. American policy has relentlessly promoted open commerce, leading the way by freeing its own markets to foreign investment, trade and travel. America's own borders have become increasingly open for flows of capital, goods, commodities, information and certain favored classes of people: entrepreneurs, scientists, students, tourists and corporate employees. When it comes to the movement of ordinary labor, however, America has not sought openness. Rather, the thrust of U.S. policy since the 1950s has been to make it more difficult for workers to enter the United States in search of jobs, except via narrow programs under corporate control.

This contradiction is nowhere more apparent than in U.S. relations with Mexico, which together with Canada is our largest trading partner. Since 1986, U.S. officials have worked closely with officials in both countries to create an integrated North American economy, open to flows of goods, capital, commodities, services and information. Yet within this integrated economy we somehow, magically, do not want any labor to be moving. Against all logic, we wish to create an integrated, continent-wide economy characterized by the free movement of all factors of production except one.

This schizophrenia is manifest in the fact that, since the mid-1980s, we have moved in two diametrically opposed directions, at once promoting integration while simultaneously seeking separation. Between 1985 and 2000, total trade between Mexico and the United States increased by a factor of eight, the number of Mexican tourists quintupled, Mexican business visitors and intra-company transferees tripled, and the total number of persons crossing the border for short visits doubled. All this came about according to plan, and only intensified with enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

At the same time, however, U.S. officials have sought to maintain the illusion of separation. As trade expanded between 1985 and 2000, U.S. spending on border enforcement increased by a factor of six, the number of U.S. Border Patrol officers doubled and hours spent by agents patrolling the frontier tripled. During the 1990s, two of the top 10 fastest growing job categories in the federal workforce were "Immigration Inspector" and "Border Patrol Agent." Today the Border Patrol is the largest arms-bearing branch of the U.S. government except for the military itself, with a budget well in excess of $1 billion per year. In many border communities, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is now the largest employer.

Why has the United States chosen to militarize a peaceful border with its closest trading partner, a democratic country that poses no conceivable threat to U.S. security? The answer, I fear, rests on seriously mistaken notions about the nature of immigration in today's postindustrial, globalized economy.

The most basic misconception is that, without a heavily militarized border, the United States will be invaded by an army of destitute immigrants fleeing abject poverty, or flooded by a tidal wave of poor foreigners eager to take Americans' jobs and consume public services at taxpayer expense. Politicians -- liberal as well as conservative -- find the imagery of invasions and floods useful during periods of economic insecurity and rising inequality, for it deflects attention from more fundamental questions about the distribution of wealth and power in the United States. Immigrants provide a convenient scapegoat to absorb voter anger about the erosion of wages, the instability of unemployment and declining access to social benefits. Politicians and the media periodically manufacture immigration and border crises as the need arises, and the restrictiveness of immigration policies is inversely correlated with the business cycle.

The truth is that most immigrants to the United States are not desperate people fleeing poverty and social chaos overseas. International migration is a well-ordered process connected to broader processes of global trade, geopolitical integration and market expansion; it is simply the labor component of a globalizing market economy. Developed nations that receive flows of capital, goods, services and commodities also receive immigrants. As a result, western Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore and other countries have joined traditional immigrant-receiving nations such as the United States, Canada and Australia to become net importers of labor.

The poorest and most populous nations of the world, with a large share of those who have the most to gain from international migration, generally do not send the most migrants. If emigration were caused by poverty, most immigrants would come from Africa, followed by the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America. Among immigrants to the United States during the 1990s, however, just 3 percent came from Africa whereas 11 percent came from the Caribbean, 30 percent from Asia and 36 percent from Latin America. Likewise, the rate of international migration across countries bears no relation whatsoever to the rate of demographic increase: The correlation is virtually zero.

Among sending countries, emigration does not stem from a lack of development but from development itself. International migration has always been part and parcel of broader processes of economic growth and development. In the course of its industrialization, for example, Europe exported 54 million people. Emigrants are created by social and economic transformations in societies undergoing rapid change as a result of their incorporation into the global market economy. What is remarkable about today's developing nations is not that they produce emigrants but that they produce so few. Whereas Britain ended up exporting half of its population increase in the course of its development, South Korea exported less than 5 percent of its demographic increase. At present, fewer than 3 percent of the world's people live outside their countries of birth.

Nor are those who do leave their countries of origin in search of work overseas the poorest of citizens. Indeed, labor emigrants tend to be drawn from the middle of a country's socioeconomic distribution, not the bottom. When they go, moreover, migrants typically do not go to nations that are richest or closest. Rather, they proceed along established pathways to countries that are already connected politically, socially and economically to their countries of origin. The main sources of immigrants for the United States are thus its closest trading partners (Mexico, Canada, China), former colonies (the Philippines, Puerto Rico), and regions where the United States has recently intervened militarily or politically (Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia).

That Mexico is by far the largest source of U.S. immigrants is hardly surprising. In addition to sharing a land border with the United States, it was twice invaded by U.S. troops in the 20th century (in 1914 and 1917), it has been the target of two U.S.-sponsored labor recruitment efforts (during 1917-18 and 1942-64), and since 1986, at U.S. insistence, it has undertaken a radical transformation of its political economy and entered the global market. Moreover, since 1994 it has been linked to the United States by NAFTA, a comprehensive economic treaty that presently generates $250 billion per year in binational trade.

Under these circumstances, immigration between the two countries is inevitable, even though Mexico is wealthy by Third World standards. With a per capita gross domestic product of $9,000, it is one of the richest countries in Latin America. It is in the interest of the United States, therefore, to build on this economic base by accepting Mexican immigration as a reality and working to manage it in a way that minimizes the costs and maximizes the benefits for both nations.

The repressive border controls imposed by the United States since 1986 have done precisely the opposite, however. Studies have found no discernable effect of restrictive immigration policies on the inflow of Mexican immigrants, documented or undocumented. Indeed, during the 1990s, a record 2.2 million Mexican immigrants entered the country legally, constituting a quarter of all documented immigration. At the same time, the probability of apprehension for undocumented migrants fell to record-low levels, raising the odds of their ultimately gaining access. By the mid-1990s, the probability of apprehension had fallen to as low as 20 percent per attempt. The selective concentration of enforcement resources at specific locations along the border redirected migratory flows toward other sectors where fewer Border Patrol officers were stationed. Perversely, more people actually got in.

By redirecting migrants toward more remote and inhospitable sectors, the selective hardening of the border tripled the rate of border mortality, causing hundreds of needless deaths each year. Moreover, as a result of the increased risks of entering the United States, Mexican migrants rationally chose to minimize border crossings, not by remaining home but by staying longer once they got in. Paradoxically, the principal effect of border militarization has been to reduce the odds of going home, not of coming in the first place.

As the size of the return flow plummeted during the 1990s, it produced a spectacular and unprecedented increase in the Mexican population of the United States.The wall of enforcement resources erected after 1993 was especially high in San Diego, which deflected migrants away from California and toward other regions of the country. Whereas 63 percent of all Mexicans who arrived between 1985 and 1990 went to California, just 35 percent of those arriving between 1995 and 2000 did so, creating an explosion of Mexican populations in a host of new receiving states.

In addition to increasing the size of the Mexican population and spreading it throughout the United States, U.S. policies have marginalized immigrants socially and economically. The criminalization of undocumented hiring in 1986 caused employers to shift from direct employment to labor subcontracting. In the wake of this legislation, everyone who wished to work in certain sectors of the labor market -- agriculture, gardening, construction, custodial services -- had to go through a subcontractor. It didn't matter if they were legal residents or citizens. The subcontractor, of course, took a cut of their wages as payment, money that before 1986 would have gone to the immigrants themselves. The net effect was to reduce the wages and undermine the working conditions not of undocumented migrants but of U.S. workers.

Other laws passed in 1996 stripped legal immigrants of the right to certain social entitlements, causing a stampede toward naturalization. More naturalizations mean more immigrants at a later date, because a U.S. citizen can sponsor the entry of spouses, unmarried sons and daughters, and parents without restriction. In addition, citizens may petition for the entry of adult sons and daughters, as well as for brothers and sisters, subject to numerical limitation. Each new citizen thus creates a host of legal entitlements for additional immigration.

At the same time, a large fraction of new immigrants are undocumented and marginalized from the rest of American society; even those with legal papers find their access to social benefits constrained unless they are citizens. If U.S. authorities had set out to intentionally design a program to create a future underclass, they could not have done a better job.

The fundamental problem with U.S. immigration policy toward Mexico -- and with U.S. immigration policy generally -- is that it treats international migration as a pathological condition to be repressed through unilateral actions. In reality, immigration is the natural outgrowth of broader processes of market expansion and economic integration that can be managed for the mutual advantage of trading partners. By migrating in response to structural adjustments at home, migrants generally do not intend to remain abroad for the rest of their lives. Some do, of course, and others change their mind as a result of their experience in the host society. But left to their own devices, most would return home, for they are migrating not to maximize income but to overcome economic problems at home. They use international migration instrumentally as a way of overcoming the missing and failed markets that are quite common in the course of economic development. The money they earn abroad is repatriated in the form of savings and remittances, which total around $60 billion worldwide. Repressive border policies make it more difficult for migrants to achieve their ambition of returning home.

Rather than accepting immigration as a logical consequence of America's hegemonic position at the core of a global market economy, U.S. political leaders have enacted repressive unilateral policies to create the impression that immigration is not occurring, that U.S. borders are "under control" and that U.S. citizens are protected from the presumed ill effects of immigrants. In fact, such policies achieve the opposite: Immigration continues, but in a way that undermines the status and welfare of U.S. residents.

Before September 11, Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox appeared to be moving toward an agreement to manage Mexican labor migration by expanding the quota for legal immigrants, creating a reasonable temporary-worker program, facilitating the return of migrants and the investment of their dollars, and regularizing the status of undocumented Mexicans in the United States. Unfortunately, the 9-11 hijackers derailed this negotiation and President Fox was left standing at the border looking northward with his hand extended as President Bush turned his back to launch the war on terrorism.

In the end, the Bush administration must learn that national security involves more than toppling ruthless dictators in distant lands. It also requires attending to the political stability and economic security of a country of 100 million people with whom we share a 2,000 mile border. The administration's inattention to migration in the context of North American integration has undermined the stature and standing of Mexico's first democratically elected president in 70 years. And every day that passes without a labor agreement makes it more difficult for Mexico to realize its full potential for economic growth.

The answer is not open borders, of course, but frontiers that are reasonably regulated on a binational basis. At present, all countries have the same quota of 20,000 legal immigrants per year, no matter their size or relationship to the United States. Thus, our largest and closest neighbor and most important trading partner has the same limited access to U.S. visas as Botswana, Nepal and Paraguay. A more realistic policy would recognize Mexico's unique status by increasing the annual immigrant quota, establishing a flexible temporary labor program and regularizing the status of those already here.

By bringing the flows above board, we would mitigate the downward pressures on wages and working conditions in the United States while raising tax revenues that could be used to offset the costs of immigration and to assist Mexico in overcoming the market failures that motivate so many moves north of the border. If we cannot manage migratory exchanges with Mexico as it joins with us to create an integrated North American market, how can we possibly hope to manage the migratory flows that will be coming from China as it is transformed by participating in the global market economy?