Why the NYT’s Immigration Report Is A Welcome Antidote to the U.S. Debate

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It’s big (and overdue) news this week that Mexico City and Washington have finally come to an agreement that lets Mexican truckers ferry their freight into the U.S. But Damien Cave’s excellent and provocative New York Times article about the decline of illegal Mexican immigration into the U.S., which ran on the front page yesterday, July 6, is arguably a more important story. The piece posits that the chief cause for the stark reduction in illegal border crossings, which have fallen to their lowest level since the 1950s, is not the recession or stricter U.S. enforcement but better living standards in Mexico:

Mexican immigration has always been defined by both the push (from Mexico) and the pull (of the United States). The decision to leave home involves a comparison, a wrenching cost-benefit analysis, and just as a Mexican baby boom and economic crises kicked off emigration waves in the 1980s and 90s, research shows that the easing of demographic and economic pressures is helping keep departures in check.

Besides interviewing Mexicans in the kind of poor rural pockets that traditionally produce undocumented migrants, Cave cites a number of factors such as greater education opportunity, increased legal immigration avenues, border violence, a lower birth rate and a higher per capita gross domestic product. The article will no doubt invite debate. One economist asserts that Mexico has had a 45% increase in per capita GDP and per family income since 2000 and says that has made going to the U.S. to find work less necessary. Others will dispute that figure; others will argue that despite Mexico’s consistent economic growth over the past decade, the new wealth is still distributed far too unevenly (more than 40% of the population still lives in poverty) to conclude that trickle-down is reining in illegal immigration. Many will still insist, as a result, that stricter U.S. immigration laws have played as large if not a larger role.

(See “Convicts or Illegals: Georgia Hunts for Farmworkers As Tough Immigration Law Takes Hold”)

But I think Cave’s piece makes a stronger point: even if enforcement can’t be discounted (and the piece does note that many would-be migrants are discouraged by tales of the less welcome environment in the U.S.) illegal immigration is better tackled inside Mexico, at its source, than by building multi-billion-dollar walls along the border. (As Mexican President Felipe Calderón has noted, a kilometer of new road in Tabasco fights illegal immigration more effectively than a mile of fence in Arizona.) In 2007, I examined the growing effect that tools like microcredit programs were beginning to have in reducing the flow of Mexican migrants from impoverished regions like southern Oaxaca state. In recent years, U.S. agencies like USAID, and Mexicans like telecom baron Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, have stepped up microlending, funneling credit to the kind of small businesses that generate enough income, and jobs, to keep more campesinos at home.

In that regard, Cave’s work is a welcome antidote to the U.S.’s narrow-minded immigration discussion, which focuses far too much on U.S. states – which aren’t even authorized to conduct immigration policy – getting tough on illegals. Then again, tougher enforcement might be leading to the kind of poverty-reduction improvements inside Mexico that the Times examines. A few years ago, while I was visiting Mexico City, a Mexican colleague surprisingly told me, “When you go back to the U.S., tell them to build the damn wall.” His point: Mexicans like him were tired of watching their political and business leaders use illegal immigration as a social safety valve against their corruption and negligence. Taking it away would force them to make Mexico a fairer country – the kind for which Cave’s reporting at least holds out hope.

(See “Border Crackdowns and the Battle for Arizona”)