Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Calderón Bares Immigration’s Inconvenient Truths

Thanks, Paul, for sharing this link. I'll share with the students as well.
-Dra. Valenzuela

Calderón Bares Immigration’s Inconvenient Truths
Matt Homer, The Century Foundation, 10/15/2007

The disparity is wide between how people think immigration ought to occur and how it actually does. Although often overlooked, the misperceptions resulting from this gap are an important factor in explaining why prospects for immigration reform have deteriorated in Congress once again. Specious assumptions about the nature of immigration and its driving forces have led to a debate based more upon misperceptions than reality.

This story recently was illustrated when Mexican President Felipe Calderón met with the governors of Mexican and U.S. border states. The opinion pages of some regional newspapers and Minutemen-esque blogs registered disbelief at Calderón’s description of immigration as a “natural phenomenon” that is “socially, economically inevitable.” This view is hardly popular in the United States, where many prefer to think immigration can be restricted, and possibly eliminated. Yet, Calderón’s observation that immigration is a natural phenomenon is borne out by economic and historical realities.

As long as wage disparities exist between localities—be they cities, states, or nations—pressures for individuals to migrate will always be present. A 2002 study (one of many on this topic) by professors at the University of Illinois and University of Essex looked at “the determinants and consequences of intercontinental migration over the past four centuries” and found that “wage rates and employment rates, both at home and in the destination” are consistent factors in explaining why people migrate. The same paper concludes that migration will continue to occur “until such time as there is substantial convergence in the incomes of workers of the same level of skill in the origin and destination countries.”

The failure of the United States’ last attempt (The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) to stymie immigration shows that restrictionary efforts are almost entirely incapable of stopping this phenomenon. A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research surveys recent immigration studies and finds that “the increase in the stock of illegal immigrants in the United States . . . indicates that U.S. enforcement efforts have not succeeded in stopping illegal entry from Mexico or other countries.” This experience has been shared by other developed nations who also have tried to control immigration with a hodgepodge of band-aid efforts, such as a stricter border controls and internal policing. In most cases, the success of these efforts has proven ephemeral as immigrants find new ways to avoid being caught. As Princeton professor Douglass Massey puts it, “the only thing to show for two decades of border militarization is a larger undocumented population than we would otherwise have, a rising number of Mexicans dying while trying to cross and a growing burden on taxpayers for enforcement that is counterproductive.”

Rather than focusing on short-term fixes, policymakers and the public should view immigration as an unavoidable phenomenon that requires long-term thinking. In his speech, Calderón makes this point clear: the only way to establish a sustainable balance is by “generating clear conditions of prosperity” in Mexico. The United States would be better off aiding Mexico in its development process than trying to keep immigrants out with a fence: “a kilometer of highway in Zacatecas or Michoacàn” would be more effective, he says, than “10 kilometers of walls in Texas, California or Arizona.”

But this development approach to managing immigration has limitations as well. As income levels in Mexico rise, so does an individual’s ability to emigrate. Infrastructure improvements—such as roads, bridges, and so on—also increase the ease of leaving the country. As the previously mentioned study puts it, “the emergence of the poorer countries from the poverty trap will provide the resources to finance international migration, as will the emigrant remittances of kinsmen already in the high income destinations.” Eventually, however, when there is a “substantial convergence in the incomes” of Mexico and the United States, immigration will diminish.

An understanding of this paradox can be seen through an application of the Kuznets curve, which is used by many economists to explain why income inequality balloons during early periods of industrialization. Shaped in the form of an inverted U, it also illustrates how emigration from developing countries such as Mexico is likely to increase initially, but then decrease over time. Increasing prosperity in Mexico would enable more and more individuals to afford the cost of leaving their country—an appealing option as long as wages in the United States remain significantly higher. Over time, however, the wage disparity between Mexico and the United States would narrow, and progressively fewer individuals would decide to leave. Once the wages of “workers of the same level of skill in the origin and destination countries” have reached parity, immigration would likely stabilize at a reduced amount. Thus, focusing on development is a long-term solution, but one that may actually intensify immigration in the short run.

The reality that immigration is here to stay for the foreseeable future should not lead to a sense of defeatism. The United States is capable of managing this phenomenon, but first policymakers must accept reality and make adjustments that take into account current immigration trends. This means significantly increasing quota sizes and expediting visa requests. The current system of restrictionary quotas and backlogged visa queues gives potential immigrants little incentive to enter legally. Establishing generous immigration measures in the short run will allow the United States to manage the situation, while also contributing to Mexico’s long-term economic development through remittances ($25 billion, or 3 percent of Mexico’s GDP in 2006) sent home by immigrants.

The paralysis in Congress to make any significant reform is symptomatic of having unrealistic expectations about what is actually possible. Dispelling these misperceptions is an important prerequisite to finding a common-ground, long-lasting approach. Any pragmatic approach to immigration reform requires accepting immigration as an inevitable phenomenon and fashioning a workable policy with that in mind.

Matt Homer is a Research Assistant at The Century Foundation.

The Century Foundation conducts public policy research and analyses of economic, social, and foreign policy issues, including inequality, retirement security, election reform, media studies, homeland security, and international affairs. The foundation produces books, reports, and other publications, convenes task forces, and working groups and operates eight informational Web sites. With offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., The Century Foundation is nonprofit and nonpartisan and was founded in 1919 by Edward A. Filene.
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