Why the Debate on Immigration is All Wrong

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

by Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a  Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother (Random House 2007).

Congress and the Obama Administration are again proposing new “solutions” to curtail illegal immigration. Sadly, they are the same tired ideas that have been tried — and failed — in the past. No one is proposing the one thing that would work.

First, a few facts. In recent years, driven by a dearth of jobs in the U.S., illegal immigration has dropped . Still, half a million people continue to enter the U.S. illegally each year; in all 4% of the population in the U.S. is undocumented. In Los Angeles, 4 of 10 people are from another country.

The benefits of this influx are clear. These migrants do some of the most backbreaking, dirty, dangerous jobs U.S.-born workers largely won’t do—and for rock-bottom wages. Immigrants’ low wages keep some businesses from closing or going abroad in order to compete. A 1997 study by the National Research Council, still considered the most objective and authoritative on the effects of immigration, found that immigrant labor also lowers the cost of food and clothing for all of us. Indeed, 5% of every good or service Americans buy is cheaper because of immigrant labor. That means more Americans can avail themselves of essential services offered at lower prices—like child care. Now, the downside….

 Because they have lower incomes, immigrants and their U.S.-born children qualify for and use more government services—including welfare—than the native-born. They have more youngsters, which means more children in the nation’s public schools. Compared to native households, immigrants and their native-born children pay one-third less taxes per capita than others in the U.S.  A Harvard University study found immigrant pay scales have lowered wages for the least educated—and neediest—among the native-born, mostly African Americans and previous waves of Latino immigrants.

Perhaps those most hurt by immigration are the migrants themselves. When mothers come to the U.S. and leave their children behind, they are able to send money to their home countries so the kids can eat better and go to school past the third grade. But after spending years apart from their mothers, these children often feel abandoned, and resent—even hate—their mothers for leaving them. Many mothers ultimately lose what is most important to them: the love of their child.

Now President Obama and congressional leaders, mindful that an overwhelming majority of Americans want illegal immigration to stop, have trotted out three solutions strikingly similar to proposals that were implemented in recent decades. Studies show these solutions—some embraced by liberals, others by conservatives–actually produced the opposite effect of what was intended. They caused illegal immigration to soar.

Take greater border enforcement. Starting in 1993, the number of agents patrolling the border and the amount of money spent on enforcement tripled, according to a 2002 Public Policy Institute of California study. Yet the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. only grew more quickly. Why? More immigrants came and more stayed for good, knowing that entry and re-entry would be more difficult and costly in the future. In 1986, half of the Mexicans who came illegally went home within a year; now fewer than a quarter do.

Second, politicians say they want to “control” illegal immigration by implementing a large guest-worker program. Bring more workers in temporarily to do jobs Americans don’t want to do. Yet the last large guest-worker program, in which Mexican braceros filled agricultural jobs between 1942 and 1964, laid the groundwork for the massive illegal migration of workers from Mexico that followed. Guest-workers were required to go home when their visa expired, but most didn’t.

Third, President Obama has said he wants to bring migrants in the country illegally out of the shadows. Allow them to become legal. The last time the U.S. offered illegal immigrants a path to a green card, in 1986 , it resulted in about 2.7 million immigrants becoming legal, but it didn’t stem the tide of newcomers. Many crossed the border believing that there would eventually be another amnesty. Many who became legal invited family and friends to join them—illegally. The U.S. went from 2.7 million illegal immigrants to zero following the 1986 amnesty to 12 million today.

So what should the U.S. do?

There is only one way to stem illegal immigration—at its source, in what are just four or five countries that send about 80% of all migrants who come to the U.S. illegally. Mexico. Guatemala. Honduras.

In Mexico, I met women who had left their children behind and headed north. They knew it was the only way they could feed them more than once a day. They could no longer bear to hear their childrens’ cries of hunger at night.

Desperate people find ways around obstacles such as walls and temporary guest-worker rules.

Instead of arguing about wall heights and local ordinances that bar undocumented immigrants from renting homes or getting jobs, the U.S. must formulate a new foreign policy focused on the issue of illegal immigration. It would use every tool in this nation’s arsenal—trade policies, foreign aide, microloans, promoting more democratic and less corrupt governments in Latin America—to help create more jobs in these countries. Trade policies could give preference to goods from immigrant-sending countries to spur job growth. More aid could be invested there for the same purpose. Microloans to individual women, a practice that has proven highly successful around the world, could help women establish small businesses and employ others.

The truth is that most immigrants would rather stay in their home countries with their extended families, with everything they know, than take the enormous risks required to cross the border and to make a new life here.

The women I met making their way North through Mexico say it wouldn’t take radical changes in their countries to keep them at home. They say that if they had food to feed their children and clothes to put on their backs, if they could send them to school, or even if they had just the hope of doing so, they would never walk away, leaving behind their homes, their lives, their children.


sonianazarioSonia Nazario has spent more than two decades reporting and writing about social issues, earning her dozens of national awards. The newspaper series upon which this book is based won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the George Polk Award for International Reporting, and the Grand Prize of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.


Filed under Author Essays

8 responses to “Why the Debate on Immigration is All Wrong

  1. Karen Chow

    Sonia Nazario is a rare cogent, compassionate voice of reason on immigration in the U.S. Her experiences documented in her book _Enrique’s Journey_ illustrates that the tragedy of people’s suffering on both sides of the border will not end until the leaders/governments of both countries work systemically and together to end the causes of this problem (including huge trade imbalances and benefits to corporations at the expense of the poor’s ability to earn a living wage) exacerbated by NAFTA. Dr. Ann Lopez has been tirelessly trying to create more awareness around this issue in Watsonville, CA, through her not-for-profit organization Center for Farmworker Families: http://www.farmworkerfamily.org. Dr. Ann is an environmental scientist whose research on agriculture introduced her to the workers and their families. She and her organization now lead tours to Watsonville, where strawberry pickers and their families tell their own stories, show the harsh conditions of their workplace and home, and dialogue takes place between them and the visitors over a shared meal. It is a life-transforming experience for anyone who has never directly met or seen the migrant farmworkers.

  2. Lara Little

    I have not read the book, but I look forward to doing so. On the whole I agree with Nazario’s assessment. The best way to prevent illegal immigration is to make it so that people don’t feel the need to leave their country in the first place. I hope that in the book she reveals more about how her plan could work, particularly from a financial standpoint, as what she proposes to do certainly comes with a price tag, and America doesn’t have much in the way of extra money at this time…

  3. M Scharff

    While I can agree with the author on most points, I think the argument breaks down with one statement that she wrote – that the US needs to increase “foreign aide, microloans, promoting more democratic and less corrupt governments in Latin America.” While I’ve not yet read the book, it would be interesting to know what policies/action she is recommending to decrease the corruption and increase democracy in many of these governments that are creating the environments she purports to help alleviate. I’m not sure sending more money to corrupt governments has helped in the past and until that is fixed, I’m not sure sending more money or aide is the answer to anything.

  4. Hope

    Sonia Nazario you enlightened me. Thank you.

  5. Mark Kozubowski

    This is a very polarizing issue in our country. This posting does a good job of pointing out the challenges and opportunities the US faces as our demographics continue to shift.

  6. The American economy is dependent upon an ever expanding consumerism. To satisfy Americans’ demand for cheap goods and services, requires cheap, illegal immigrant labor. Their presence forces down the price of American labor. Hence, the nation’s capitalists prosper while labor, both the illegal immigrants and the American workers (especially the former) suffer. A reasonable solution, and a just one, would be some sort of guest worker program that would allow temporary immigrant workers to work at the same wages and benefits paid American labor.

  7. Steven Strang

    I think the idea of microloans directly to women to help them start their own businesses, etc. circumvents the problem of corrupt governments. There is no doubt in my mind that addressing the issue of poverty at its roots in other countries will stem the tide of illegal immigration. “Foreign aid” that goes directly to the people rathe than to foreign governments is the best way of accomplishing democratic goals. Some US employers encourage illegal immigrants to come do the dirty jobs that we do not want to. Our whole history is filled with various versions of abusing those that we make powerless with our laws (slavery being the most obvious abuse, but attracting Asian workers to come build our railroads etc. continued the process).

  8. I have to say that I love this blog. I just wanted drop a comment and say what a awesome job you’ve done. I wish other sites would put so much time into their website. Keep the posts coming.

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