Immigration in the Time of Joe Biden: What to Do (Part 7 of 11)

Open the Southern Border to Mexican Citizens

A high degree of flexibility would follow a measure that I advocated in 2009 : “If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely” (pdf). (Formerly: “Thinking the unthinkable: illegal immigration; The bold remedy.” ), with Sergey Nikiforov, The Independent Review, 14-1: 101-133 (Summer)). That is, to allow Mexicans (and Americans, of course) to come and go across the southern border at will. Such a policy might do little to relieve worker shortages in high tech fields in the short run. Yet, it would probably be enough for lower skilled labor to transport itself where needed entirely according to demand. Of course, no implied promise of citizenship would be attached to this free border policy. Before the new open border policy is implemented a strong, loud announcement should be made to the effect that no change toward citizenship and no “amnesty” will take place. There would still be some leakage, of course, in particular because Mexican citizens would marry American citizens they would encounter in the course of their daily lives working in the US. A black market in phony marriages might also develop. That would probably be managed easily.

There are two big objections to such a policy of free movement. First, incoming Mexicans would be competing with Americans and effectively place a ceiling on the wages of the least skilled among them. Of course, I understand this Econ 101 argument but I believe it mostly does not apply here for the simple reason that the stereotypical comment is correct and there are jobs Americans just won’t do. There are crops rotting in the fields three miles from where I live in central California, for example. Yet, the downtown retail employees laid off by COVID and who used to earn $11 an hour are not rushing to try and earn $18 or more picking Brussels sprouts. Most Mexican immigrants (legal and illegal) come from rural agricultural areas and they are used to hard, dirtying physical labor. We simply don’t have a reservoir of such population in the US anymore.

To understand why Mexican citizens performing any work they like in the US would probably not undermine much the native born’s wages requires a small dose of cynicism. Coming from rural areas as most do, those people have little opportunity to study English. Working more or less full time, it takes most of them many years to reach a level where they are more or less functional in English. Accordingly, it takes them many years really to compete realistically with the native born. If my hypothesis is correct, many would have saved enough and gone home before they reached that stage.

Incidentally, and contrary to a belief widespread among my fellow conservatives, Mexican immigrants and other temporaries are well aware of the fact that their earning capacity would shoot up if they knew English well. Accordingly, none resists learning English. The reverse fairy tale that they do originates in an American collective belief about learning languages that verges on mental illness. I wrote about this phenomenon in: “Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America.”

I think that few Mexicans really want to move to the US permanently. Many are trapped here because we make coming and going so difficult and so dangerous. Instead, most of them just want a chance to earn five or six times more than they earn back home, take their savings and go home there to buy a farm or to open a restaurant, or to set up a car repair shop. I realize this is merely anecdotal evidence, but I have met enough Mexican returnees in Mexico who explain with clarity that they like Mexico more than they like the US and that they wish to live among their relatives. This is not absurd, of course. It’s at least plausible.

The second main collective argument in favor of the establishment of such free circulation zones is this: The existence of so many economic hostages in the US would give any Mexican government an additional motivation to guard its southern border more carefully. The obvious is not said often enough: Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan pretend-refugees and potential illegal immigrants into the US have no practical way to try their luck without first entering Mexican territory and crossing a large portion of it with immunity.

More objections to such partial but permanent border opening are predictable. Some will argue that it would give free rein to numerous different kinds bandit enterprises based in Mexico, including drug cartels. I think the reverse is true. If a level of funding broadly commensurate to the present were still dedicated to the southern border, many more resources could be diverted from checking on innocent Mexican manual workers seeking honest employment to diverse varieties of gangsters. Furthermore, any Mexican administration, however corrupt, would understand that the free roaming policy could be rescinded any time, causing much disturbance inside Mexico. This would encourage it to try and keep a better lid on trans-border illegal activities, including terrorism. Lastly and, I think, most importantly, the policy would turn many of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of border crossing Mexicans eager to keep the policy alive into law enforcement informers.

In passing, of course, if an international agreement existed to permit such free movement some Americans would go and try their luck in Mexico. Many are already there, working on commission, selling real estate and part-time rentals. More would follow. It makes sense to think of this as a good thing for both Mexico and the US. This happens, in spite of significant bureaucratic barriers that such an agreement would tend to lessen or eliminate under the international principle of reciprocity.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 7 of an 11-part essay. You can read Part 6 here, or read the essay in its entirety here.]

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