Foreign Policy

Mistake to focus on border security

The question of immigration reform awaits House leaders after the holiday recess on January 7.  The Senate did its part with a comprehensive bill six months ago, but Republicans who control the House have clearly expressed preference for a “piecemeal” series of bills rather than a comprehensive one.  President Obama’s recent indication that he’d accept this approach virtually assures laws will be changed one step at a time, if at all.

The first step, by all indications, will be a border security bill.  In theory, passage of strict border security measures will help persuade skeptical legislators to support further reforms.  In practice, however, hard evidence indicates that passage of a border security bill will be completely irrelevant to the future trajectory of immigration in the United States. This is not to say that achieving perfect border security is impossible, though numerous logistical challenges exist.  Rather, border security is irrelevant because the flow of illegal immigrants across the border from Mexico – the root cause of border security concerns – has effectively halted.  And there are strong reasons to believe that this is a permanent development.

{mosads}The argument for addressing border security first is eminently logical.  Creating a path to legal status for undocumented workers – the most significant goal for many reform advocates – would engender the least worry if the nation first ensured the existence of such a path would not encourage a new wave of illegal immigration.  Reform skeptics want to avoid repeating the perceived mistakes of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which offered amnesty to immigrants that had already arrived but did not stem the ongoing tide of illegal immigrants.

Things are very different today, as there is no longer a tide of illegal immigrants to stem.  Over the past five years, the number of Mexican-born U.S. residents has actually decreased. Decades of steady immigration – not only from Mexico, but from virtually every corner of the world – came to a halt during the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009.  Since that time, migration from some parts of the world has resumed.  The number of U.S. residents born in Asia has increased by some 1.5 million since 2007.  Mexican immigration, by contrast, has remained at historically low levels.

One might be tempted to attribute the slowdown in Mexican immigration to stepped-up enforcement efforts under the Obama administration.  The Department of Homeland Security has reported nearly 400,000 deportations per year since 2009, double the volume of a decade ago.  These actions, along with continuing efforts to police the border, certainly haven’t hurt.  But the real story about the drop in Mexican immigration hinges on what’s happened south of the border.

Migrants cross borders when opportunities on the far side vastly outnumber those at home.  In past decades, population growth fueled by high birth rates coupled with economic growth too meager to create jobs for an expanding workforce compelled residents of Mexico to consider options abroad.  Since the late 1980s, however, the growth rate of inflation-adjusted per capita GDP in Mexico has more than doubled the rate here.  Over the same time period, the Mexican birth rate fell 42 percent.  The World Bank projects that Mexico’s population growth rate between 2000 and 2050 will be 74 percent lower than the rate between 1950 and 2000.

Border security will be irrelevant to future immigration because the impetus to cross the border illegally has vanished, thanks to these profound economic and demographic changes in Mexico.

What should the framers of our nation’s new immigration policy really be thinking about?  Statistics on the immigrants who have arrived in the country most recently reveal some important clues.  As noted in a Manhattan Institute report I authored earlier this year, today’s new immigrants are better educated, more adept at navigating our challenging job market, and more proficient in English than their pre-recession counterparts.  They are making rapid progress toward the American mainstream.

Rather than focusing reform efforts on a threat that will never materialize, Congress would do well to adopt policies that encourage this newer wave of migrants – from Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and other corners of the globe – to progress even more rapidly.  Many of them would jump at the chance to become citizens – Canada’s more welcoming naturalization policy helps explain why immigrants are better integrated on the other side of our northern border.

For more than a century, American immigration policy has been rooted in the belief that there were too many foreigners wanting to enter our country.  We’ve accepted and even celebrated the good things immigrants have done for our country – their economic, civic, and cultural contributions – so long as there weren’t too many of them.  As our experience with Mexican immigration indicates, the 21st century will mark a radical turning point.  Worldwide, the number of migrants will dwindle along with population growth rates in the developing world.  The need for migrants in the U.S. – fueled by developed nations facing low birth rates, a shortage of labor, and the pressures of maintaining generous welfare states – will not abate.  The United States can reshape its immigration policy in response to this emerging reality.  The first step to realizing this opportunity is to recognize that reality has changed.

Vigdor is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and professor of public policy at Duke University.


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