Commentary: It's Time For The U.S. To Let In More Mexicans

Whatever one may think of the illegal immigrants who sneak across the border from Mexico seeking work in the U.S., what has been happening recently in Arizona is disturbing. There, pistol-packing ranchers prowl highways with searchlights and walkie-talkies to round up dozens, sometimes hundreds of Mexicans. The ranchers, angry that the immigrants tramp through their property, hold their prey at gunpoint until the U.S. Border Patrol arrives. In the past 15 months, at least six Mexicans have been shot and three killed along the border, with several of the incidents attributed to vigilantes.

The Mexican government is understandably outraged. Yet it has done little over the years to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. Washington, meanwhile, spends nearly $1 billion annually to patrol the 2,100-mile border with Mexico. About 1.5 million illegal Mexican immigrants were captured and returned in 1999. Countless others slip into the U.S. undetected each year.

It's time that policymakers on both sides admit that they cannot thwart the laws of supply and demand. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. and Mexican economies are, for better or worse, inextricably bound together. That agreement has made it possible for capital and commerce to flow freely between the two countries.

"IN DENIAL." Yet unlike the European Union, NAFTA does not allow for the free movement of labor. That prospect may be far off, but in the meantime officials in the two countries should look for ways for more Mexicans to work in the U.S. without having to risk life and limb to do so. "We're in denial that we are very dependent on this [work] force to fill gaps in the U.S. labor market," says Raul Hinojosa, who heads the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A precedent for regulating the flow of labor between Mexico and the U.S. already exists in the "Bracero" program. Between 1942 and 1964, that program allowed almost 5 million foreigners, mostly from Mexico and the Caribbean, to work in the U.S. Its successor, the H2 visa, has not been nearly as effective: Only 22,000 such visas were issued to Mexicans in 1998. That's partly because the required paperwork can be onerous, so companies simply hire whom-ever shows up for work, knowing that there's little chance they will be prosecuted for employing illegal aliens.

Immigration experts rightly argue that the current system is imperfect and open to abuse. Demetrios Papademetriou, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says the U.S. should consider allowing industries with proven labor shortages to temporarily import workers as long as employers give them the same rights enjoyed by U.S. workers. Hinojosa has suggested that up to 300,000 such permits be made available to Mexicans each year.

There might be no time like the present for the U.S. and Mexico to open talks on a new immigration policy. With U.S. unemployment at a 30-year low of 3.9%, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan recently argued that immigration laws should be relaxed to ease pressures on the labor market. From the vegetable farms of California to the meat-packing plants of Iowa, it is clear that several U.S. industries are already hooked on Mexican labor--legal and illegal. And Americans are used to paying low prices, be it for VCRs or hand-picked berries.

NAFTA's backers promised the trade pact would reduce the flow of illegal immigrants by creating jobs in Mexico. True, Mexico's economy has been growing at a 5% clip for the past five years and generating about 700,000 jobs annually. But that's just over half the number needed to accommodate new entrants into the labor force. Most of the fresh employment opportunities are in the export sector, where wages are 15% higher on average. Still, many a Mexican would gladly trade in her $1.56-an-hour job at a maquiladora plant for the $5.15 an hour she could make working at a carpet factory in Georgia.

As long as those wage differentials remain, Mexico will continue to rely heavily on the $6.5 billion that some 9 million Mexicans living in the U.S. send home each year. That's about half what it receives in foreign direct investment. As long as the U.S. needs more workers and Mexicans need more jobs, the problem of illegal immigration won't go away. The answer is not gun-toting vigilantes. It's a new and improved program to let workers in legally.