President Joe Biden knows how to fix illegal immigration. As he told Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador recently, offering legal pathways for would-be migrants “is a proven strategy that fuels economic growth as well as reduces irregular migration.”
This is not controversial. With one glaring exception, presidents over the last four decades — Barack Obama, both Bushes, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton — have shared the understanding that a solution must acknowledge the powerful economic and demographic forces driving, and pulling, workers north across the Rio Grande.
The challenge, as presidents Biden and Lopez Obrador are well aware, has acquired new urgency as illegal immigration from Mexico has rebounded following a decade and a half of shrinking numbers. It raises anew the perennial, vexing question about America’s response: If we know how to fix it, why don’t we?
The American political class — Democrats and Republicans — has ducked behind a wildly unrealistic promise to seal the border and stop would-be immigrants on the other side. Immigrants, understandably, have refused to comply.
The United States has even deployed a version of the strategy articulated by Biden. Bilateral agreements between Mexico and the U.S. under the so-called Bracero guest worker program curbed rampant illegal immigration from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.
The program was rife with abuses. Mexican farmworkers barely understood the terms of their contracts and routinely had their wages stolen. What’s more, it was accompanied by the mass deportation of unauthorized workers in 1953 and 1954. It did, however, direct Mexicans seeking work on American farms through a legal channel.
The impact on illegal immigration was such that, by 1954, wrote the political scientist Richard Craig in his 1971 book about the program, the worker without legal permission to be in the U.S. “had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.”
President Lyndon Johnson ended the program in 1964, however, on grounds that it depressed the wages of American workers. Illegal immigration across the Southwestern border roared back — settling into a pattern largely shaped by the supply of and demand for workers in Mexico and the U.S.
While the political system has since then come close a couple of times to offering the kind of legal pathways needed to satisfy Mexican and American demands for immigration, it has never fully done the job.
In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized nearly three million unauthorized immigrants, made it illegal for American businesses to hire immigrant workers without legal documents and offered farmers a new guest worker visa, the H2-A, so they could hire Mexican labor legally.
It failed: Farmers found the H2-A rules too costly. It was cheaper to hire the unauthorized immigrants that showed up with fake green cards and made-up Social Security numbers. Across the economy, employers argued they couldn’t be expected to tell fakes from the real thing and welcomed the cheap, illegal labor.
Other failures followed. In 2007 a fragile bipartisan alliance pushing for a new reform package including guest worker and legalization provisions fell apart over disagreements about whether guest workers could eventually become citizens. Another attempt failed in 2013.
Voters’ confidence in the immigration system collapsed. And border enforcement — hundreds of miles of fencing, drones, sensors and a border patrol that has swelled to some 20,000 agents from about 5,000 in the mid-1990s — was left as the only tool to manage migration flows.
Of course, the political class’s main problem in resolving the challenge of illegal immigration is that voters mistrust both immigrants and the employers that would like to hire them.
The belief that immigrants depress the wages of native workers persists more than half a century after the Bracero program’s demise. Many Americans without a college degree perceive immigration as an existential threat. Proposals to open a broad legal path for more immigrants to live and work temporarily in the U.S. are hotly contested.
Democrats and Republicans might prefer to punt on the problem. After all, the population of unauthorized immigrants has stabilized over the last 15 years or so.
Mexico is older now. Compared with a few decades ago, fewer Mexicans are now in the peak migration range of about 15-to-25 years old. Scholars, ranging from Princeton’s Douglas Massey to Harvard’s Gordon Hanson and Pia Orrenius of the Dallas Fed, look at the demographics and conclude that the wave of unauthorized migration from Mexico is decidedly behind us.
Punting seems unwise, however. If some thousands of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States are creating such a political headache for the administration, Mexicans coming illegally are likely to turn the pain up a notch.
In the fiscal year through May, U.S. agents encountered 560,000 unauthorized Mexican immigrants. That is about a third more than in the same period of 2020 and over three times the number encountered in 2019, before the pandemic hit.
The Southwestern border may not get as busy as it was at the turn of the century, when the Border Patrol picked up 1.6 million Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally. But falling incomes and rising poverty, spurred by a relentless pandemic that doesn’t relax its grip and a government that refuses to step in to help, not to mention endemic criminal violence, are likely to push many more toward the red-hot labor market to the north.
The arguments for a more liberal immigration policy are solid. A robust and still growing body of economic research has repeatedly debunked the claim that immigrants take Americans’ jobs and cut their wages. It was bogus back in the time of the Braceros.
And employers are as eager as ever to have such workers. In 2020, some 200,000 Mexican farmworkers came to work in the U.S. on H2-A visas, four times as many as in 2010. Indeed, as aging shrinks the native U.S. labor force, scholars have begun to worry that the United States’ most urgent immigration problem is that it has too few low-skill immigrants; not too many.
It’s time to deploy that “proven strategy that fuels economic growth as well as reduces irregular migration.”