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The "Difficult Dimensions" of Immigration and Border Security


by Austin Bay
April 5, 2006

The economic and political evolution of Mexico -- in preference to destructive revolution -- remains the big strategic goal of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA).

In the next three to five decades, expanding economic and political opportunity in Mexico will drastically reduce the number of illegal aliens (both immigrants and migrants) entering the United States from Mexico and Central America.

To paraphrase the line attributed to John Maynard Keynes, however, the long run isn't a good guide to current affairs, for "in the very long run we are all dead." While great plans may ultimately produce extraordinary benefits, human beings live by their daily bread.

The difference between immigrants and migrants has policy implications. American immigrants intend to stay. When given the opportunity, the immigrant opts for integration and Americanization -- adding new melt to the melting pot. Economic migrants, however, come to the United States to work, but often have little interest in remaining in the country. A work-permit program is a short- to mid-term solution for the economic migrant dimension of the illegal alien problem. A sound international work-permit program legitimizes and regulates the worker's status. It also provides economic migrants with civil and economic protections they now lack.

"Illegal," however, is the volatizing word that raises legitimate, rational issues of justice and authority, but also sparks a range of emotions, from xenophobic anger to generous sympathy. Unfortunately, a cruel strain of false sympathy frustrates reasoned political discussion. The faux-compassionate caricature all attempts to address border control and immigration issues as racist and nativist.

Amnesty programs, which in effect reward illegal entry -- and thus penalize legal immigrants who followed the rules -- are unjust. They erode respect for civil authority. Granting "amnesty now" sets a precedent for future demands, and thus fails to resolve fundamental issues.

At the same time, there is no just or rational way to prosecute or expel the 11 million to 13 million illegal aliens living in the United States. Difficult human factors, such as the "citizen child" with an "illegal immigrant parent," vex the debate. In these complex cases, exacting letter-of-the-law penalties divides families -- a result that is anything but just.

Legislation that creates pathways to legitimacy, while stigmatizing illegal entry (with a fine or similar consequence), is the best available solution. The legislation proposed by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy may be imperfect, but it's a good start-point for fashioning a "pathway program" that will help mitigate the current crisis.

Tackling the long-run problems of immigration and border controls requires a more comprehensive strategic approach, one that won't be solved by building a wall or punitive laws.

Securing economic justice and political reform in Mexico is key to any truly effective long-term solution. The Mexican people know it. A decade ago, I met with a number of businessmen and women in northern Mexico who were "dollarizing" their businesses because they did not trust the corrupt central government. I also met several northern Mexican political activists who detailed their plans for ending the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) decades of one-party rule.

In 1997 and 2000, those plans led to opposition-party victories. Vicente Fox's presidential election, however, was the end of the beginning for Mexican reformers. Mexico's bitter mix of statist economics, poverty and elite corruption frustrate quick change.

Mexico's elites do indeed export their unemployed, as well as potential political dissidents. That policy must end. On the other hand, U.S. businesses benefit from low-wage workers (many coming from Mexico). The U.S. birthrate has declined, and immigrants compensate for that decline. America must confront those facets of the immigration problem.

U.S. demand for illegal narcotics feeds Mexican corruption. Narcotics trafficking negatively affects political and economic conditions in Mexico (and thus has an impact on immigration). Getting real control of the borders means curbing America's appetite for illegal drugs.

All too often, "difficult dimensions" like demography, corruption, political reform and drug smuggling are ignored when U.S. leaders slap together immigration and border security legislation. We can't let that happen this time. Sept. 11 demonstrated that porous borders, lax visa policies and unenforced immigration laws do have disastrous security consequences.

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