We have suggested before that if a basic goal of immigration reform is to discourage illegal immigration in the future, then the creation of a viable essential workers program—providing sufficient numbers of immigrant visas for lower skilled workers to meet the needs of the U.S. economy—is critical. Just as critical, in the minds of virtually all federal lawmakers, is the need to make improvements in border security, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. But is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to seal the border really an effective strategy?
The Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744, would provide a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants, but would require that certain border security “triggers” be met first. Specifically, S. 744 would devote enormous resources to securing the border, dedicating approximately $45 billion to deploying additional Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border; completing the construction of at least 700 miles of fencing, much of it creating a DMZ-like no-man’s land between two layers of fences; constructing other new infrastructure including additional Border Patrol stations and watch towers; and funding mandatory use of certain technology including camera systems, mobile surveillance systems, ground sensors, radar systems, helicopters, marine vessels and even unmanned drones. The Secretary of Homeland Security would be required, within 180 days of the law’s effective date, to identify where the new fencing, infrastructure and technology is to be deployed, and to produce a Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy that would establish “effective control” of the border (i.e., surveillance of 100 percent of the border and 90 percent effectiveness in deterring illegal border crossers). Before any undocumented immigrants could qualify for the new Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status that the bill creates, certain security-related goals would have to be fulfilled, including the construction of the 700 miles of fencing; mandatory use of E-Verify by all U.S. employers; implementation of an electronic exit system at all airports and seaports; and deployment of at least 38,405 full-time Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
We have not yet seen a bill from the House that would provide a path to lawful status for the undocumented, but we can expect that any such bill would require that even stricter border security conditions be satisfied before any legalization program would kick in. The House Homeland Security Committee has, however, approved a standalone bill on border security (the Border Security Results Act of 2013, H.R. 1417), which would require the DHS Secretary to report to Congress every 180 days on the state of operational control of the country’s international borders, and to achieve “situational awareness” of such borders within two years. Another bill, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act (H.R. 2278), which passed out of the House Judiciary Committee in June, would implement new interior enforcement initiatives, including criminalizing unlawful presence; allowing individual states and localities to enact and enforce their own civil and criminal penalties for immigration violations; and expanding grounds for mandatory detention and deportation.
All of this raises, or perhaps sidesteps, the critical question: Is this the best way of deterring unlawful immigration? Unauthorized border crossings have diminished significantly in recent years in any case, with net migration from Mexico at zero or even less. And construction of fencing along the border has already had a number of well-documented negative consequences. For example, according to evidence collected by faculty members and students at the University of Texas School of Law, border fence construction that has already taken place along the Texas-Mexico border has meant that “[p]rivate property was condemned to make way for the fence, farmers and American Indians lost access to the Rio Grande, cross-border communities were separated and the environment was severely damaged.” There are also negative economic implications. Sealing the border against unauthorized immigrants creates bottlenecks against legitimate cross-border movement: some 18 percent of all U.S.-Mexico trade passes through El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, while the San Diego Association of Governments has estimated that the San Diego-Tijuana region loses more than $2 billion in economic activity annually because of long waits at the border crossing. Moreover, the terrain along some parts of the border makes it impossible to completely seal it, and this fact—together with existing border security measures that have pushed prospective immigrants into more dangerous territory—has already led to many tragic deaths, especially in the desert areas of southern Arizona.
International migration is generally understood to be spurred by various “push and pull” factors. “Push” factors include poverty, persecution, armed conflict and family separation—all reasons pushing people to leave their home countries to seek a better, or at least a safer and more stable, life elsewhere. “Pull” factors include economic opportunity, religious and political freedom, personal safety and family reunification—the flip sides, as it were, of the “push” factors. As long as these factors continue to exist, unauthorized immigration into the United States will never cease completely, regardless of the risks, if there are insufficient legal means of immigrating. A paradoxically negative consequence of sealing borders is the extent to which it inhibits rather than facilitates what has come to be known as circular migration (defined as the temporary or permanent return of migrants to their countries of origin). This not only strands unauthorized immigrants in the United States by discouraging them from leaving, but also has a negative impact on their countries of origin, which cannot benefit from the skills and resources of returning migrants. International bodies such as the United Nations, the European Commission and others have recognized the extent to which circular migration serves as a development tool for lesser developed countries, and how “strict policies to lock people out can have the reverse effect of locking them in …[which in turn] lessens the development potential of the migrant[s] and their assets.”
Congress clearly believes that sealing the border will compel prospective immigrants outside of the country to pursue legal immigration channels, but spending billions of dollars to further militarize the border seems like overkill. As Stuart Anderson wrote in a March 2013 policy brief for the National Foundation for American Policy, “If Congress adopted reforms to allow the legal entry of foreign-born workers in sufficient numbers the tragedy of immigrant deaths at the border would largely disappear and illegal entry to the United States would be reduced.”
While border security is important, more thought should be given to ensuring that U.S. immigration law provides for the lawful, orderly migration of sufficient numbers of foreign workers at all skill levels who can fill the persistent occupational gaps in the U.S. economy. Re-directing some of those billions of dollars to investing in education and training in order to develop a U.S. workforce with a broader skill base, and to facilitating the immigration of foreign workers to fill jobs U.S. workers can’t or won’t do, is probably a better use of our tax dollars.
- Austin T. Fragomen and Careen Shannon