Commentary: The Border Is More Porous Than You Think

By Paul Magnusson

Humane Borders, an Arizona charitable group, recently erected 65-gallon water tanks on federal land along the border with Mexico to aid thirsty migrants making their way north across the Sonoran Desert. Although the U.S. Border Patrol could easily stake out the towers to snare parched illegals, it has promised not to do so.

The decision by authorities to look the other way neatly captures U.S. ambivalence about illegal immigration: It's officially discouraged but quietly tolerated. The result of this policy confusion shows up clearly in the recently released Census 2000 figures. Until now, the U.S. Census Bureau had pegged the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. at 6 million. But the recent count boosts the figure up to 9 million or more. The bureau came to this conclusion after the census found millions more foreign-born residents than prior surveys, many of whom it assumes are here illegally--probably from Mexico.

This huge extra flow of illegal entrants casts a harsh light on U.S. immigration policy. Whether you're pro or con current immigration rules, it's clear that the U.S. policy of limiting entry to official visa holders isn't working. This failure poses serious consequences for state and local officials, who are on the front lines of dealing with a rapidly growing influx of immigrants needing an extra hand. Statistics show that illegals usually arrive with less money, younger children, no health insurance, and fewer job skills than U.S. citizens.

Magnifying the impact, immigrants, legal and otherwise, tend to bunch up in certain areas. California gets 40%. Most others head for Miami, New York, Chicago, Washington, or large cities in Texas. Local schools and hospitals shoulder most of the burden, "particularly because these are administered and funded locally," says William H. Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. "We can decide we want more immigration, but we also have to start being more strategic in our approach." One way to start: Washington should aid the areas most affected by porous immigration policies.

That's especially true in light of mounting political pressure to accept even more immigrants. Mexican President Vicente Fox advocates opening the border with his country. The AFL-CIO has come out against penalizing U.S. employers who hire undocumented workers. And pro-immigration groups in the U.S. want to legalize millions of undocumented workers.

Meanwhile, the new census figures show that U.S. borders are more penetrable than ever. The foreign-born population in the U.S. has soared to 31 million, up from 20 million in 1990. By contrast, the bureau's regular annual survey of households produced an estimate of 28 million foreign-born residents. Officials assume that most of the 3 million people missed in the less thorough annual survey are here illegally.

That conclusion is buttressed by the fact that employers report having 4 million more workers than the household surveys show. The presumption is that illegals aren't revealing themselves in the household surveys, while the employer data--which is reported to tax agencies--are more accurate. "There has been a lot more happening on the immigration side than we've been measuring," says John F. Long, chief of the bureau's population division.

There's little doubt that the huge rise in immigration during the past decade has helped the economy by keeping inflation low, easing labor shortages, and fostering business formation. But a higher flow of immigrants will also present a great challenge over the next decade to local governments that are least able to cope. Politicians in Washington need to come up with a clearer immigration policy. Meanwhile, they could help ease the burden of assisting the newcomers.

Magnusson covers international economics from Washington.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.