“Good fences make good neighbors”, says the narrator’s neighbor in Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall” of nearly a century ago. What is usually forgotten about the poem is that the narrator, presumably Frost himself, questions why fences between neighbors are necessary at all.
That question was seldom asked by neighbors along the U.S.-Mexico border where I grew up as a child. The border, except for short distances through the major towns, consisted of a three-strand barbed-wire fence—no different, no sturdier, than the fences that divided our own ranch into different cow pastures. At some rural locations, where the roads crossed into Mexico and where traffic could not justify the cost of full-time Border Patrol personnel to operate a crossing point, the sign on the border gate simply said, “Please close gate after crossing the border.”
At our ranch near the border, our mother always had a young woman from Mexico who helped her manage the household and cook meals for the various ranch hands. Ophelia crossed the border on Monday morning, took the regularly scheduled bus that passed by the ranch and stayed until Friday night when she returned to Nogales and her family. No one ever asked what documents she had; she simply came to work on Monday and went home to her family on the weekends. Occasionally, an undocumented ranch hand would come through the valley seeking work. Father would usually give him a meal and send him on his way. And that is pretty much what the “invasion” of undocumented persons looked like sixty years ago.
Today, that picture looks very different. Instead of a few hundred apprehensions of illegal entrants (the total in 1950), by 2000 there were more than 315,000 in Arizona alone, 45 percent of the total for the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of miles of hardened fences and walls, ominous looking but hardly impenetrable, now mark the border between the two countries. In the past five years, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to more than 20,000, about 4,000 of them assigned to Arizona.
What caused this change from a benign and quiescent border to a militarized one, bristling with hardware and personnel? How is it affecting Arizona, as well as the rest of the country?
The first, most obvious sign that change was about to come to the Arizona border was the adoption of two enforcement programs set up in Texas and California: “Hold the Line” in the El Paso-Juarez area in 1993 and, a year later, “Operation Gatekeeper” along the San Diego-Tijuana border sector. These programs arose out of local frustration over the rapid increase in the number of illegal immigrants crossing at the two “easy” urban centers along the border. It was inevitable, however, that increased enforcement in these areas would funnel illegal crossers into Arizona, a significantly more hostile physical environment but one lacking in law enforcement coverage.
Enforcement in Arizona began to catch up to the increased flow in 2000, but it was quantitatively and qualitatively a different kind of enforcement. Attaining the same density of Border Patrol agents in the remote Arizona desert as in the urban sectors of San Diego and El Paso simply wasn’t possible. So the state government adopted new technology to provide a barrier where a human enforcement presence could not—cameras, sensors, lights, drones, monitors for underground tunnels and, of course, fences and walls that stretched ever further from the urban centers. The special nature of both the source and response to vastly increased illegal immigration into the state could be called “Arizonagration.”
The U.S. economy boomed through the first half of the millennial decade, and the demand for labor continued unabated. Arizonagration got worse. New business models, increased innovation and technology were not the sole province of law enforcement. Smugglers, always present in the effort to move drugs into the United States, now found a new market in human smuggling. Prices soared, and soon it cost $2,000 or more to get into the United States, with additional charges for temporary safe-house “storage” and transportation onward to the city of choice.
Following the law of unintended consequences, a tighter border led to a new dynamic in the pattern of illegal immigration: a dramatic increase in the average length of stay for an illegal immigrant. When the journey was a simple matter of getting transportation to the border, walking across the border and continuing on by bus to a place of employment, the typical immigrant (usually male) stayed for only a few months, long enough to complete the tourist, harvest or construction season. Hence, immigrant workers left little imprint upon the communities where they worked. But heightened enforcement has rapidly increased the costs of evading it, to the point that it often consumes a year or more of earnings or an entire family’s savings. Thus the migrant now has to remain for years at a time to recover the costs of getting into the United States. This phenomenon is well documented in surveys. From 1995 to 2005, the average length of stay of an immigrant worker rose 700 percent, from just less than one year to nearly seven years. This is, again, something we have done to ourselves.
The social consequences of this change are not hard to imagine. Migrant workers who were once hardly noticed by anyone else in the community, now compelled to stay for longer periods, often want their families to join them in the United States. Gradually, the demographic character of the immigrant community began to change. Whether it was a meat packing plant in Omaha or part of the booming construction industry in northern Virginia, families of immigrants began to populate the areas surrounding work sites. Mothers and fathers both worked, children enrolled in schools, whole families appeared at hospital emergency rooms or community clinics for health care, and families roamed the shopping malls on weekends. Among the tragic consequences of this sweeping change has been a dramatic increase in the number of deaths of illegal immigrants, particularly of women and children, crossing the Arizona desert in the hot summer.
The non-immigrant population began to notice a rather abrupt change in the cultural and social character of their communities: new faces, new language, different food in the restaurants and shelves of the supermarket. What had been a “problem” unique to the largely remote and politically powerless border region suddenly became a “problem” in America’s heartland, too. Populations and politicians across the country began to see (or sometimes just imagined they saw) the social costs of immigration, including increased strain on school and community health budgets, more active law enforcement and new cultural patterns.
Meanwhile, back in the border states, and particularly in Arizona, still ground zero of the immigration surge, the chorus of voices demanding increased and more effective Federal law enforcement grew louder. When the Federal government didn’t oblige this chorus, largely because for several reasons its enforcement tools were inadequate, the frustrated population demanded that local politicians take matters into their own hands. The result has been laws like last spring’s SB 1070, which directed law enforcement to check the immigration status of suspected illegal immigrants during routine stops. Suddenly, Arizona found itself under an international spotlight as a racist, retrograde state.
This is not the place to dissect the constitutional and other legal arguments about SB 1070. To say that this is a complicated legal matter may be the understatement of the still new century. Suffice it to say that a Federal judge has already delayed implementation of key provisions of the legislation for attempting to interpose state enforcement onto the structure of Federal enforcement, and that the substantive questions about the legislation are yet to be fully aired and adjudicated.
Meanwhile, however, the intervention by the Justice Department as a plaintiff challenging the Arizona law places the Obama Administration in a difficult political position. If Arizona were to prevail in the courts, it is almost certain that similar legislation will proliferate across the national landscape like weeds after a summer rain in the desert. If, on the other hand, the Federal government were to prevail, then the spotlight will put the Administration under its full glare once again: The courts will have given Congress and the President absolute responsibility and ownership for the problem. Whatever will they do?
In truth, it isn’t hard to know what to do; implementation is quite another matter, however. One must begin by recognizing that solutions like the one Arizona cobbled together in SB 1070 or President Obama’s pledge to send more Border Patrol agents and National Guard forces to fill in gaps along the border are both doomed to fail. They are doomed because illegal immigration results not from a lack of enforcement but from economic drivers. Any “solution” that concentrates effort on the border itself is like trying to stop a flood from an ever-rising surge of water by constantly patching the levee, when the real answer is to drain the water behind it.
Nor are the spotty, public-relations driven Federal attempts to round up undocumented workers at packing plants or construction sites the answer. The only solution that has any real hope of working is one that involves—and how many times have we all heard this?—a comprehensive approach to the problem. Specifically, that comprehensive approach needs to include four key elements.
First is better enforcement. This does not simply mean more Border Patrol agents and higher, longer and more impenetrable fences. It means better enforcement in the workplace (which can only happen if other parts of the solution are implemented, as we shall see). It also means a better tracking system to follow those who enter the country on a student, tourist or other visa. Better enforcement must go beyond the border because, although it is not widely recognized, roughly half of all persons currently in the country illegally came with a legal visa and simply stayed beyond its expiration.
Second, a comprehensive approach would include an economically driven model for temporary or “guest worker” immigrants. “Economically driven” is the key term here. A model based on arbitrary, fixed numbers of workers will not succeed in a dynamic economy. The number of work visas issued each year must be flexible and determined by the marketplace. Setting the limit significantly below the demand will only ensure that the unscrupulous and the desperate will find new ways to get undocumented workers into the United States.
The third element is tied closely to the second: A temporary work visa program cannot succeed without a method for determining who is legally qualified for a job and who is not. The current system relying on three separate documents is filled with loopholes and opportunities for fraud. It is as ineffective as voluntary speed limits might be on a major highway. A verifiable, counterfeit-proof form of documentation for an approved guest worker is essential. In broad terms, it must be issued at the border or at the U.S. consulate in the worker’s country of origin, and it must go beyond the simple social security number, which is easily invented or stolen. It must include unique biometric information, either a retina scan or fingerprint embedded into the card. One can imagine a card that could be scanned like any credit card, containing the individual’s fingerprint or a retinal scan. The Department of Homeland Security would maintain a centralized database that could verify within seconds that the card and the individual are a valid match. Cases against employers who hire illegal workers, now difficult to prove, would become open and shut with such a system in place.
Finally, a comprehensive approach would include a means of accounting for the several million persons in the country at the time the legislation would go into effect—people who are here in part because, again, for various reasons, the U.S. government failed to seriously enforce its own laws. The employment documentation system described above would give these people strong incentives to come out of the shadows and obtain a valid card: Failure to do so would make them virtually unemployable, since an employer would have a very large pool of valid, documented workers from which to hire.
There is a political stigma attached to programs that would legalize the status of undocumented workers already in the country. Such “amnesty” programs, as opponents pejoratively label them, spook far too many politicians. The public in fact is far ahead of the politicians on this issue. A recent poll in Arizona found that while 55 percent of people favor SB 1070, an even larger number (62 percent) supports allowing current illegal immigrants with a job but no criminal record to remain in the country. Most Arizonans, and likely most Americans, too, understand the importance of this temporary labor force for sustaining a dynamic economy. Seventy-three percent of Arizonans would favor some form of guest worker program, though again, most are mindful that the program must be designed in such a way that avoids perverse longer-term market distortions for the sending nations or for the United States.1
These, then, are the four elements of comprehensive immigration reform. Aside from questions about what mechanisms and tools we should use to implement a program, there remains the fundamental question about what kind of immigration policy we want. What do we expect to achieve with it?
Since the enactment of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, U.S. immigration policy has strongly emphasized the unification of families as the primary basis of admission. Today, two-thirds of all legal immigrants admitted to the United States are relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. These are admitted without consideration of language, education, job skills or any other reasonable factor that might predict success in the work force. Meanwhile, the quota for H-1B visas (the temporary visa for skilled foreign workers) is set at a paltry 65,000 per year.
Part of the reason we don’t attract more talented individuals to the United States is that other countries, most notably Canada, recruit more aggressively, and part is that there are today more economic opportunities in countries like China and India, which historically have been large providers of our immigrant talent pool. But again, much of the failure lies at our own doorstep. Security considerations following the September 11, 2001 attacks have caused ever-lengthening delays in visa processing. Many foreign students are unable to get a visa in time to start a graduate program. Professionals with skills in high demand, ranging from engineering to bio-technology, nursing and radiology, often find the delays so daunting that they simply choose to work elsewhere.
Without doubt, the United States now finds itself at a disadvantage when it comes to using immigration policy as a strategic tool to maintain our competitive position in a global economy. Any comprehensive immigration legislation must also look carefully but directly at the goals and objectives of an immigration policy, not just the tools to make it work. If we do both, we can build a powerful political coalition for immigration reform.
In the meantime, Arizona, with its heavy dependence on tourism and construction, continues to struggle in a prolonged economic downturn. And it continues to suffer from a failed Federal immigration policy, even as it economically hobbles and stigmatizes itself with legislation like SB 1070. Good stone walls may make good neighbors in Vermont where Robert Frost lived, but not, these days, in Arizona.