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.
Sonia 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.