The cross-border flow from Mexico into the U.S. slowed to a trickle with the “Great Recession” that began in 2007 and has remained minimal for the past decade.
REPRESENTING the political party that has traditionally worried most about frivolous, wasteful spending on “pork barrel” infrastructure projects, President Trump has signed an executive order directing his administration to build what he has described as a “big, beautiful wall” on our southern border.
The wall is itself a frivolous, wasteful infrastructure project. Though symbolic — one might even say “bigly” symbolic — it will accomplish nothing, for it is a solution to a problem that no longer exists.
I don’t mean to say that the problem of undocumented migrants — illegal immigrants, if you prefer — has ceased to exist. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center estimates that there are over 11 million people living in the United States without official authorization. It is the problem of undocumented migrants crossing America’s southern border that has vanished. The best available estimates indicate that the cross-border flow slowed to a trickle with the “Great Recession” that began in 2007 and has remained minimal for the past decade.
How good are these estimates? We can triangulate from several sources. The U.S. Census Bureau has recorded no significant change — if anything, a slight decrease — in the number of Mexican-born people residing in the United States. Princeton University’s Mexican Migration Project, which conducts regular surveys on both sides of the border, has registered a precipitous drop in the number of people who report making an attempt to cross the border. And the U.S. Border Patrol has recorded a 75 percent drop in the number of individuals apprehended at the border since the last year of the Clinton administration.
The dramatic drop in border crossing reflects three key trends in demographics, economics and security.
Throughout American history, immigrants have been drawn from origin countries with high birthrates. As nations modernize their medical systems and invest in public health, their populations tend to expand, simply because fewer citizens die at a young age. Over time, parents react to this improved life expectancy by choosing to have fewer children. But before this reaction kicks in, high birthrates and low death rates yield a population explosion. This was the story of Mexico a generation ago. Rapid population growth found the country with too many people and too little for them to do. So many of them left.
These conditions no longer hold in Mexico. The birthrate has declined, and the population has stabilized.
At the same time, Mexico has enjoyed robust economic growth. Thanks in large part to increased trade opportunities brought about by NAFTA, work opportunities within Mexico have improved dramatically over the past 20 years.
Finally, improvements in border enforcement technology — the use of drones, infrared sensing and more strategic deployment of personnel — have made it much more difficult for anyone to cross the border without being detected, even without a wall.
While all evidence indicates that unauthorized border crossing is no longer a problem in America, the lives of 11 million U.S. residents — hundreds of thousands of them brought to this country as children — hang in the balance.
Immigration has more complicated economic effects than most politicians would admit. While immigrants may compete with native-born Americans for jobs in some communities, in other cases, immigrants do work that would otherwise not be done, or would be done abroad.
Millions of immigrants own homes, and their presence in the nation’s housing market increases the home equity — the wealth — of most American families. Immigrants have revitalized what had been declining urban neighborhoods, and start businesses at a much higher rate than the native population. Immigrants pay taxes and contribute to the trust funds that provide Social Security and Medicare benefits to today’s retirees.
Those who would be inclined to scapegoat immigrants for the nation’s economic problems should consider the case of Japan. Like the United States, Japan has experienced an extended period of weak economic growth. Unlike the United States, Japan maintains a notoriously strict immigration law, and as an island nation faces very few issues with undocumented border crossing. Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have recognized that the absence of immigrants is a weakness, not a strength. Without immigration, the Japanese population is shrinking, meaning fewer potential buyers for every home on the market. The rapidly aging Japanese population will find fewer workers to support a growing number of retirees. The government has begun discussions of liberalizing immigration policy, even as America seems poised to move in the opposite direction.
The United States faces significant economic challenges, as workers struggle to find their niche in an increasingly automated, on-demand economy. The impulse to blame these challenges on immigrants is misguided; acting on this impulse would exacerbate the very problems we seek to solve.