Border security is a misnomer

Globalization is characterized by free trade, free movement of capital, and migration of labor.  Globalization is also the movement from capital accumulation at the national level to capital accumulation at the global level.  The main role of the state thus becomes promoting economic activity such that companies within its territory can be internationally competitive.  The state is limited in this activity by its capital endowments, including human capital, infrastructure, basic public services, and public policies which attract foreign investment.

Labor responds to the new state-market relationship, searching for economic opportunity on a global scale and migrating accordingly.  Generally, this takes the form of movement from developing to developed nations.  The specific pathways of migrants are the result of several structural factors such as a history of migration between countries which facilitates continued migration regardless of changes in a given nation’s laws.  Since the mid-19th century when the United States acquired what are now the southwestern states from Mexico, individuals have been crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation.  In the last few decades, however, the U.S. has militarized the border in the name of security.

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Militarization of the border, however, which was designed to keep undocumented immigrants out, has had the reverse effect of keeping them in.  Attempts to control the flow of migrants across the Mexican border into the United States increased the cost of crossing in terms of both the penalties for being caught and the price charged by smugglers.  This reduced the likelihood that seasonal workers would return to Mexico for part of the year for fear of being unable to re-enter.  This led to an increase in the number of immigrants who sought to permanently settle in the United States.

Border militarization has also affected where immigrants settle.  In order to avoid being apprehended by Border Patrol once they entered the United States, immigrants began to settle outside of the historic areas along the border, moving further into the United States.  In 1993, only 20 percent of immigrants settled outside the states that border Mexico.  By 2002 the percentage settling outside of the border region was 55.  Furthermore, increased “border security” did nothing to deter continued undocumented migration; despite restrictive immigration policies, nations are not able to completely prevent immigration to their country.  Instead, the restrictive policies simply move migration into unauthorized channels.

The attempts by the United States to control the border were counter to the fact that globalization leads to labor migration from developing countries like Mexico to developed ones like the United States.  Additionally, border militarization ignored the historical migration between Mexico and the United States, much of which had been largely unregulated.  Border militarization in the name of securing the border is thus a losing battle as globalization will continue to result in the movement of individuals from developing to developed nations in search of economic opportunity.

The proposed border security measures included in the immigration bill currently before the House will only serve to perpetuate the cycle of continued unauthorized immigration in response to global market forces.  Given the forces of globalization and the failure of previous border security measures to fully secure the border, it is highly unlikely that the 90 percent control rate desired by Republican members of Congress can be achieved.  It also suggests that immigration control should be pursued through other mechanisms besides border security. 

Smith is a recent graduate of Villanova University with a Master of Arts in political science.