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Why We Can't Stop Illegal Immigration

January 15, 2004

By Tamar Jacoby

Laredo, Texas

The five U.S. Border Patrol agents hovered around a desk in the hut at the 15-mile checkpoint on Interstate 35. All were strapping, blunt-faced men with revolvers on their hips, and there was no mistaking their seriousness of purpose. The Border Patrol's Laredo sector--one of nine along the southwest frontier--considers this Texas outpost, 15 miles from Mexico on the major artery from South and Central America into the U.S. heartland, its "major defense" against unauthorized alien penetrations. Closed-circuit TV screens bathed the room in a somber gray light; contraband-sniffing dogs yapped noisily at the traffic outside. And now the men were clustered intently around a computer terminal, apparently checking if a newly arrested suspect was linked to organized crime or terrorist activity. Clearly, they had caught someone--maybe even someone of interest.

It was hard to know what to make of the incongruity when the knot of men shifted and their prey came into view. There were three of them, and the young, shy-looking woman--it was impossible not to think "girl"--was doing the talking. Small, slender, in jeans and a sweater, she looked as if she had come straight from hanging out with friends at the mall. Her cousin and younger brother--who turned out to be only 13--were even less prepossessing.

The agents conducting the interrogation were pleased by the collar, but even they seemed nonplussed. They had nabbed the trio on a bus with what one officer called "50-yarders"--identity documents so poorly forged you could tell they were counterfeit from that far away. The teenagers had waded through the river several hundred miles downstream and were now making their way via Greyhound to Houston, where they said they had family. Their fresh-looking jeans and rucksacks, plainly purchased on this side of the border, suggested that someone in Houston was paying handsomely for the trip. And not only one trip, it turned out. Running the kids' photos and fingerprints through the computer, agents found they had made the trip three previous times in the past two weeks--made the trip, been caught, had their papers confiscated, been deported back to Mexico, bought new papers, crossed again, and once again been caught, albeit each time on a different bus route. No wonder the agents were flummoxed. One of the best-equipped, most professional agencies of the U.S. government was playing cat-and-mouse with three teenagers--and it wasn't clear who was winning.

Striking as it seemed, the episode was far from unusual. Despite a historic buildup of forces on America's southwest border--the number of agents has nearly tripled in a decade, and budgets have multiplied even faster--there has been no appreciable decrease in the number of illegal migrants entering the country. New strategies and new technologies have significantly raised the probability of getting caught, but this stops almost no one. Like these teenagers, migrants just try again--often in more remote border areas where the United States has fewer agents and less sophisticated defenses. In the Laredo sector alone, the Border Patrol catches between 100 and 200 people per day; the daily figure for the entire frontier is about 2,500--some 932,000 last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And, in all but a handful of cases, after a few hours detainees are escorted back to the border and released--free to try again. It's impossible to calculate how many actually get through, but estimates run as high as half a million per year.

This failure has dire consequences for America's security, its economy, and the rule of law. Clearly, the immigration system is broken, and enforcement alone--whether on the border or in the heartland--isn't going to fix it. Which is why President Bush's proposal to create a guest-worker program that would divert the illegal influx into legal channels and legalize up to eight million undocumented laborers already in the country is such an important development. The initiative isn't perfect, but it is a bold step in the right direction, all the more significant coming from a Republican president. Not that its boldness has insulated the proposal from heavy criticism on both the left and the right. Hardly a Democrat has a good word for it, and the conservative blogosphere has gone ballistic. Presidential candidate Howard Dean claimed it would do nothing but "help big corporations," while paleocon Pat Buchanan denounced it as a "blanket amnesty." Some, like UPI columnist Steve Sailer, even suggested that the plan might justify "conservatives sitting out the November election, voting for a third-party candidate, or, in the ultimate extremity, voting for the Democratic nominee." Yet critics--particularly those in Congress, who now must choose whether or not to take up the president's proposal--would do well to recognize it as a key first step and an opportunity to be seized. After all, if something isn't done, the problems posed by illegal immigration are only going to get worse.

A visit to the border is a troubling experience, not least for security reasons. Although, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, not a single terrorist suspect has been apprehended on the U.S.-Mexican border in the years since September 11, 2001, we plainly need to patrol our southern frontier. Even if we never catch a terrorist there--and most agents believe would-be terrorists have the savvy and resources to choose other routes--we need to know who is entering the country and to control the number of immigrants we admit. But border enforcement as we know it is an exercise in futility. In 1986, hoping to eliminate the underground population that had accumulated from decades of unsanctioned migration, Congress passed legislation legalizing nearly three million undocumented workers. Today, the number of immigrants without papers has crept back up to more than eight million--the highest in U.S. history. And our attempts to catch them once they have established themselves in the United States are even less effective than our efforts to control border-crossings. In October, in a rare battery of workplace raids, the DHS made national news by arresting exactly 250 of the eight million: overworked janitors, mostly Mexican and Eastern European, employed by Wal-Marts. Authorities hope these arrests and the prosecutions to come will have a chilling effect, but, like the endless apprehensions on the border, they seem unlikely to make much of a dent.

In fact, the more one looks at these futile enforcement efforts, the more they recall an earlier era in our history: Prohibition. The problem with Prohibition, as every schoolchild knows, was that it was so out of sync with reality, so remote from human behavior and established economic patterns, that it had no hope of succeeding. It's not that alcohol is beyond government control. Realistic regulations--liquor licensing, blue laws, import duties, and the like--work effectively to keep both sales and use in check. But, by overreaching, Prohibition did far more harm than good, producing a national black market, a many-tentacled web of international smuggling, widespread criminal activity by otherwise law-abiding citizens, and underworld violence of a kind not seen before or since.

The parallels with our current immigration policy are already apparent. The failure to regulate our southern border has eroded the rule of law throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of people migrate to the United States each year and join those living on the margins of American society with false identities and counterfeit documents. California alone is home to more than two million illegal residents; New York state to more than one million. Undocumented workers fear police and other authorities, thereby undermining law enforcement in their communities. They come to believe that U.S. laws, like the immigration code, are meant to be winked at. Their illegal status also hurts Americans economically: Because illegal immigrants can't bargain for better, they undercut wages and work conditions for native-born laborers. And the consequences of forcing millions of people underground are deeply corrosive to our political values. After all, what kind of democracy depends for its livelihood on a vast pool of noncitizen non-persons who cannot participate in civil society?

The problem does not stem from a lack of will on the part of the Border Patrol. On the contrary, the agency has all the hallmarks of a dedicated, professional force, and it has shrewdly modernized both tactics and strategies in recent decades. Thirty years ago, enforcement in Laredo was a very different business: more Wild West than modern military efficiency. The entire Border Patrol had fewer than 2,000 men, a budget under $100 million, and its main task, at least in Laredo, was keeping the city free of vagrants, shoplifters, prostitutes, and the like who drifted over from the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo. Then, in the mid-'70s, the illegal flow started growing and the border buildup began. Today, the Border Patrol boasts nearly 11,000 men, and--including expenditures by other, related DHS agencies--the total amount spent policing the southwest frontier exceeds $9 billion. The most important changes stem from a new strategy, introduced in the mid-'90s, based on the notion of "prevention through deterrence." Today, in Laredo, agents are stationed like sentries high on the bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande, where would-be immigrants are sure to see their SUVs. Stadium lighting, 24/7 remote video monitors, seismic motion detectors, and other high-tech devices guard the well-worn paths up along the riverbank. And, as soon as migrants are detected, officers swoop down to arrest them. The force's computer system is state-of-the-art; central authorities track trends carefully and allocate resources accordingly. Indeed, it's hard to see what else they could be doing to stem the tide.

These improvements seemed successful at first. In Laredo, apprehensions shot up, then declined significantly, suggesting that would-be immigrants were being deterred. (Lacking any other way of measuring the flow, researchers use apprehensions as a proxy for the number that get across.) But apprehensions along the entire border, from sea to sea, did not decline during the '90s. Migrants simply moved their operations to more remote desert terrain. And, while increasing numbers die at those new crossing points, no fewer ultimately seem to make it into the United States. On the contrary, the illegal population is growing faster than ever. Apprehensions did fall somewhat in 2001, but no one who studies the issue can confidently tell you why: It could have been better enforcement, but it could also have been the sagging economy or new habits among migrants who, though not deterred from coming, now seem to visit home less frequently. And, whatever the reason, according to the Border Patrol, in 2003 apprehensions were on the rise again. "The best we can do is manage the border, not control it," Laredo Assistant Chief George Gunnoe explained ruefully. "'Manage' means we can account for all the entries. But, even with all the resources in the world, you won't stop the flow. Even if we shut the southern border, they'd come across the northern border and up along the coasts."

The reason, of course, is economic. Mexicans have accounted for the lion's share of farmworkers in the United States for more than 60 years, since we first started recruiting them for that purpose during World War II. The only thing that has changed from decade to decade, depending on U.S. policy, is whether they come legally (as immigrants), illegally, or as temporary guest workers. In many regions of Mexico, migration has become a way of life: Many villages, now effectively bedroom communities for dependent families, sustain themselves by exporting their able-bodied men. Of course, the market for low-skilled labor has expanded, and Mexicans now fill many other dirty, low-wage jobs as well. But, as study after study has found, it is the economic climate--wage levels in the United States, wage levels in Mexico, unemployment, the exchange rate--that most affects the flow of Mexican workers, not border enforcement.

I caught an unusual glimpse of the flow--and why it is so hard to control--in Laredo. The Border Patrol was experimenting with a new program for deporting people apprehended while attempting to cross the desert in Arizona, and the Mexican consul decided to interview them, one by one, as they stepped onto Mexican soil. I watched one sunny afternoon as a batch of 150 people filed across the international bridge--tired, hungry, dirty, almost all of them men in their twenties. And I couldn't help noticing the way they carried themselves: neither particularly surprised by how they were being treated nor, apparently, discouraged. Some 20 percent told the consul frankly that they were going to try again straightaway. Another 10 percent said they were going to stay in Nuevo Laredo--another way of saying they would try again, since there could be no other reason to hang around in the sleepy border town. And, according to consulate staff, even those who declared they were going back to their home villages said it was to regroup for another attempt. Almost every man I spoke to had been to the United States before; indeed, a number had lived here many years, and several were on their way back to regular jobs. But even those making the trip for the first time had a destination in mind and information, from a relative or fellow villager, about a likely job. And that was when it struck me: They were just people on their way to work. This trip was turning out to be somewhat longer and more frustrating than usual, but, in truth, it was much as they expected--simply part of the price they pay for employment in the United States.

Meanwhile, although U.S. law enforcement is having no appreciable effect on the size of the flow, we are making it more and more necessary for migrants to avail themselves of "professional" help--effectively spurring the growth of a vicious criminal underworld. More and more migrants pay smugglers to bring them across: One estimate, by the Public Policy Institute of California, suggests that nine in ten now use a "coyote." Smuggling fees have increased dramatically, from a few hundred dollars a decade ago to as much as $2,000 today. And, as the business becomes more lucrative, it also becomes more organized: Big-time criminal gangs seek to get involved. According to local law enforcement, several international drug-smuggling rings are now beginning to dabble in the human trade. Much of this new criminal activity is in Arizona, because that's where border enforcement has shunted the traffic. Crime is soaring in Phoenix: not just document fraud, long endemic in the illegal community, but murders (up by 45 percent in the last ten months), money-laundering ($160 million was funneled through the city in one six-month period in 2003), kidnappings, and extortions. Smuggling cases have increased by 50 percent since 1998. The DHS's immigration- and customs-enforcement division has recently apprehended a bumper crop of illegal weapons: everything from assault rifles to automatic handguns. And, in early November, a shoot-out on an Arizona highway--probably between two rival smuggling gangs--killed four people and caused a wreck involving three other vehicles that happened to be traveling on the interstate.

Why hasn't anyone, Democrat or Republican, taken action before now to remedy our disastrous border policy and the Prohibition-like activity it is spawning? The failure of what critics call an "enforcement-only" approach came to the surface with a vengeance in the summer of 2001: That year, as intensified patrolling blocked the easiest paths in places like Laredo, some 336 Mexicans died trying to cross the border in remote desert regions. Prodded by the deaths and by the way newly elected Mexican President Vicente Fox was engaging the White House, pro-immigration Democrats and Republicans, business lobbies, labor unions, and immigrant advocates suddenly got serious about trying to work out a bipartisan solution. In July, the Bush administration leaked to the press that it, too, was crafting a reform package.

Then, after the September 11 attacks, all talk of immigration reform came to an abrupt halt. For two years, the Bush administration sat on its hands rather than spend political capital opening a border that Americans, more than ever, wanted to close. It wasn't until this summer that more horrific deaths along the frontier prompted both Democrats and Republicans to introduce reform bills in Congress. Some of the more interesting were initiated by borderstate Republicans--including Senator John McCain, Representative Jim Kolbe, and Representative Jeff Flake, all of Arizona--who saw the havoc that unrealistic efforts to stop the flow were wreaking in their jurisdictions. But, without a bipartisan proposal or backing from the president, it was all but impossible to make progress. Business wanted a reliable stream of workers but was less enthusiastic about labor protections. Unions and their Democratic allies wanted to legalize the undocumented workers already in the country but were wary of guest-worker programs. And the Republican Party was split down the middle--divided between a pro-immigrant business wing and rank-and-file voters tempted by the siren song of restrictionism. The one promising bipartisan measure introduced this fall was a compromise known as the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security bill, which would create a new guest-worker program and a path to legalization for up to half a million Mexican farmhands. A balanced bill with some four dozen Senate sponsors, half Democrats and half Republicans, it stood an excellent chance of passing--until it was held up in subcommittee by Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican with restrictionist leanings.

It was into this morass that the president waded last week. Though he plainly has political motives, that doesn't mean he isn't serious, and his proposal--which would apply to all types of workers, not just farmhands--could form the basis of the kind of comprehensive, bipartisan reform that's needed. In many ways, it builds on the work going on behind the scenes since before September 11, 2001: most important, the recognition, widely shared among reformers, that the migrant flow is inevitable and that we should aim to manage and make the most of it, not try futilely to interdict it. The Bush administration aims to do this through a temporary-worker program open both to illegal laborers already in the United States and others, not yet arrived, who would like to find jobs here. There would be no limits on the number who could participate: Anyone with a job or a job offer--theoretically the entire illegal immigrant workforce of eight million or more. Participants would enjoy full labor rights, they could get driver's licenses and health insurance, those who wished could bring their families to the United States, and they could travel freely back and forth to their home countries--life-altering improvements to the way they live now. The proposal would provide a steady stream of reliable laborers for industries--from agriculture to the restaurant business--that now rely on an unpredictable, illegal work force. With its realistic guidelines, instead of the current unworkable prohibitions, it would help restore respect for the rule of law in immigrant communities. And it would enhance national security, regularizing and regulating border-crossings and freeing up resources so law enforcement could zero in on more suspicious aliens. Altogether, it's hard to exaggerate the difference even temporary legalization could make--for immigrants and for the rest of us.

But the Bush proposal has a critical flaw: It makes no provision for these temporary workers to become citizens. On the contrary, administration officials have repeated over and over that they expect most participants in the program eventually to return to their home countries. In fact, President Bush has proposed an array of incentives to ensure that they do, including portable Social Security benefits that immigrants could not collect until they left the United States. This is no accident: The president is bowing to political pressure from the Republican right, which sees legalization as an immoral "amnesty" and--probably more important--dreads the prospect of any new citizens, let alone eight million or more, likely to vote Democratic. But, by failing to provide a better track to citizenship, Bush's proposal undercuts the gains it hopes to make. Imagine, for example, a Mexican short-order cook who has been in the United States for 15 years, working, paying taxes, and raising children born here, who are American citizens. Mexico is no longer his home country; the United States is. And yet, rather than reward him for working hard and assimilating, the president's proposal bars him from full membership in U.S. society. If the cook is smart, he won't sign up for the program or will simply skip out and return to the shadows before he and his American family are due to go "home." Without an adequate bridge from the temporary-work program to a full-fledged citizenship track, the president's proposal cannot hope to eliminate the underground economy and will only perpetuate a permanent foreign-born underclass.

The problem is not insurmountable--Bush has not ruled out creating a bridge between a temporary-work program and the existing citizenship track. Indeed, the administration seems willing to lift the barriers that now make it extremely difficult for undocumented workers to apply for green cards--the first step toward citizenship--and has suggested augmenting the number of cards issued each year. The increase required would be substantial. But, rather than dismiss the president's proposal, Democrats should jump at this opportunity to negotiate a better reform package. Although Bush is never going to accept a plan that puts all temporary workers automatically on the road to citizenship, as reform advocates once hoped, Democrats can widen the path--whether by adding green cards or creating some other mechanism. Admittedly, success would come with a heavy political cost, giving the president a big victory in what may be a close election year. But Democrats would be making a big mistake to allow this opportunity to pass. Without Bush's leadership, there is virtually no chance that a majority of Republicans will acknowledge the inevitability of the unskilled migrant flow, and they will not support reform. Conservatives who criticize the Bush proposal as an unprincipled "amnesty" assume that there are alternatives--that we can simply crack down harder on the border and enforce any quota we like, no matter how unrealistic. But we can't. Mexican workers want to fill jobs in the United States, and they will continue to find ways to enter the country. Without immigration reform, it will be business as usual on our southern frontier: more futile law enforcement, more migrant deaths, and more crime. Just ask the Border Patrol agents in Laredo.

Copyright © 2004 The New Republic


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