By Karl Reiner
The anemic economies of Latin America have never been a U.S. foreign policy priority. There were always more important matters to contend with: the Cold War, events in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. As the American economy expanded, it attracted job seekers from the sluggish economies to the south. They followed the land route into the United States, coming across a lightly controlled border.
The vast majority of the migrants crossing the southern border were drawn by the promise of jobs and a better life. They came seeking the economic opportunities allowing them to provide for their families. Unlike the previous waves of immigrants that roiled American society, most of the southern border crossers entered the United States without proper papers.
At the current time, approximately 11 million people reside illegally in the U.S. Roughly 60% (about 7 million) are from Mexico. The 2.2 million from other Latin American countries account for another 20% of the total. In the U.S. labor force of 155 million, it is estimated that about 7.8 million workers are illegal.
In Arizona, slightly less than 6% of population is illegal. In the state’s labor force of 3,164,000, it is estimated that about 240,000 workers are undocumented. Arizona’s nervy attempt to expand its role in immigration law enforcement was severely circumscribed when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down several parts of SB 1070. While many are infuriated with the ruling, the federal effort to control the border with Mexico is not as insipid as Arizona’s leaders imply.
The U.S. Border Patrol has over 18,500 agents working the southern border. In the fiscal year ended last September 30, they apprehended approximately 340,000 illegal border crossers, the lowest number in nearly 40 years. The decline was due to a combination of factors: fewer jobs in U.S., enhanced enforcement, the increased use of technology and an improving Mexican economy.
Arizona’s officials remain obsessed with security while paying no attention to related border issues. In doing so, they ignore one of the cardinal rules of good governance. Leaders must fully understand the effects of the policies they seek to implement. They must not merely consider the immediate effect of their proposed action on certain groups; they must consider the long-term effects on the economy and society.
Despite a multitude of problems, Mexico is a top market for U.S. exports. It is estimated that the bilateral trade with Mexico supports 6 million U.S. jobs. The $21 billion in remittances flowing back to Mexico from workers abroad supports a large chunk of the population with 80% of the funds going for food, clothing, health care and household expenses.
Over 50% of the people in the U.S. believe immigration is a big problem. Unfortunately, there is no political consensus as to what to do about it. When President Bush proposed an overhaul of the immigration system in 2004, the proposal died in Congress.
This generation of American adults has sadly learned that we can’t sustain an economy by buying and selling houses at ever higher prices. As a result of the downturn, we amassed a huge public-sector debt our children will have to pay off. The next generation will also be expected to foot the enormous bills for their parents’ health and pension costs.
As the effect of the recession slowly ebbs, the domestic labor force will continue to age and shrink. Immigrants are going to have to fill the gap. Not all of them will come as unskilled laborers. The U.S. immigrant investor program grants visas to investors willing to invest up to $1 million. It is interesting to note that three-fourths of the applicants to the program in 2011 came from China, the world’s second-largest economy. Around half of all U.S. patents are currently granted to foreign inventors. As the immigration debate grinds on, keep in mind the fact that visas and work permits are not citizenship applications.