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 an affront to human dignity. There, pistol-packing ranchers prowl highways with searchlights, night-vision binoculars, 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. Adding insult to injury, an anonymous pamphlet has surfaced, inviting American vacationers to park their RVs on the ranches and join the vigilantes for some "fun in the sun." In the past 15 months, at least six Mexican immigrants have been shot and three killed along the border, with several of the incidents attributed to ranchers.

The Mexican government is understandably outraged. It has hired a Washington law firm to determine whether it has grounds for pressing charges against the ranchers.

But at the same time, Mexico has done little to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. Washington, on the other hand, spends nearly $1 billion a year to deploy some 8,000 border patrol agents along the 3,400-kilometer border with Mexico. Around 1.5 million illegal Mexican immigrants are captured and returned annually. Still, hundreds of thousands more slip into the U.S. undetected each year. U.S. lawmakers now want to throw more manpower at the problem. In mid-May, the House of Representatives recommended sending the National Guard to the border to help with enforcement.

PRECEDENT. It's time that policymakers on both sides of the border 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.

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 to make it possible 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 labor 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 granted temporary work permits to almost 5 million foreigners, mostly from Mexico and the Caribbean. The Bracero program was replaced by the H2 visa. There is no legal ceiling on such visas--22,000 were issued to Mexicans in 1998 alone. Yet the required paperwork can be onerous, since it requires employers to establish that they cannot fill those jobs with domestic labor. So companies simply hire whom-ever shows up for work, knowing that, with few exceptions, they probably won't be prosecuted for putting illegal aliens on their payroll.

Immigration experts, along with labor rights groups in the U.S., rightly argue that the current system is imperfect and open to abuse. Demetrios Papademetriou, a migration expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think-tank, says that officials in the U.S. should consider allowing industries with proven labor shortages, such as agriculture, meat-packing, or restaurants, to temporarily import workers as long as employers provide them with the same rights enjoyed by workers in the U.S. That includes disability benefits, the right to unionize, and freedom to switch employers. Hinojosa, for his part, has proposed the creation of a North American visa that would allow as many as 300,000 Mexicans to work in the U.S. each year.

EXPORT ENGINE. There might be no time like the present for the U.S. and Mexico to open talks on a new immigration policy. The U.S. economy is on a tear, and unemployment is at a 30-year low of 3.9%. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently argued that immigration laws should be relaxed to ease inflationary pressures resulting from a tight 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, in turn, have become used to low prices, be it for VCRs or hand-picked berries. "As consumers, we don't want to admit that our standard of living is tied to that shadow labor force," says Luis Plascencia, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin who is the son of Mexican immigrants.

When NAFTA was being debated in 1993, officials in Washington and Mexico City promised that the pact would reduce the flow of illegal immigrants by boosting growth and creating new jobs in Mexico. Indeed, Mexico's economy has been growing at a 5% clip annually for the past five years. Yet it has been generating only about 700,000 jobs per year, or just over half the number needed to accommodate new entrants into the labor force. That compels Mexicans to search abroad for work.

Commentary: It's Time for the U.S. to Let in More Mexicans (int'l edition)

The EU solved this problem by subsidizing economic development in poorer member countries, such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal, before allowing free movement of labor. Such largesse is unlikely in NAFTA, where the main players prefer to let the market take care of development, however uneven. True, Mexico's export sector is today the main engine of growth. And export jobs pay 15% more on average than those linked to the domestic market. But 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 more than Mexico earned last year from agricultural exports and about half what it received in foreign direct investment.

NAFTA alone cannot meet Mexico's demographic challenge. According to a study by Robert Manning, an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown University, even though Mexico has sharply reduced its population growth rate from 3.1% a year in the 1960s to 1.9% in the 1990s, the number of Mexicans entering the workforce will remain high for the next two decades. That means the problem of illegal immigration won't go away anytime soon. The answer is not gun-toting vigilantes. It's a new and improved program to let workers in legally.

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