On the Border.

Sometimes it is useful to look backward to have some idea about contemporary issues.

Hispanic-Mexican immigration is a political problem in the United States. In 1986 the US offered an amnesty to those Mexicans in America illegally, combined with the promise of a crack-down on future illegal immigration. The illegal immigrants got amnestied, but the crack-down was slow in coming. In 1994 the US did crack down on immigrants openly flouting the law along US highways. As a result, illegal immigrants concentrated on crossing the Sonoran Desert into Arizona. In 2004 1.3 million Mexicans got snagged by the Border Patrol trying to cross into the United States; 500,000 of them in Arizona alone. This totaled more than those arrested in any other American state, and it ignores the many others who got through. One estimate held that about 485,000 illegal immigrants successfully entered the country each year.

By April 2007 there were about 20 million people from Mexico working in the United States. The goods they produced exceeded in value the GNP produced by all the Mexicans who stayed home. The money they sent home ($20 billion a year) trailed only oil exports in Mexico’s foreign earnings, leading both tourism and direct foreign investment. These remittances amount to a form of foreign aid paid by the United States to Mexico. Same as money for drugs.

Why do all these Hispanic-Mexicans come to the United States? In some places, going to work in the United States has become a basic right of passage for young men. The cost can run $20,000. The financing of this resembles American student loans. Illegal immigrants basically “charge” the cost of their passage, then spend years paying it off. The debt collector then becomes a regular figure in the emigrant community. Then there is is the awful state of the Mexican economy and the many injustices of Mexican society. Mexican elites export their surplus population to the United States to avoid having to pay decent wages or provide decent public services in their own country. More money for them.

So, it’s good for Mexicans and for Mexico. However, a majority of Americans regarded it as a Mexican invasion. Working-class voters see Mexican immigration as a threat to their livelihood. Probably a lot of middle-class people see the flood of Mexican immigrants as a threat to raise taxes for services and as a threat to the Anglo culture. You may not like that, but it’s a democratic country where citizens have a right to express their feelings—and where the feelings of non-citizens don’t count. In 2005 the—Democratic—governors of New Mexico and Arizona declared “states of emergency” in their states because of illegal immigration. They complained that the federal government has failed to address the problem. For example, while most Mexican immigrants are immediately returned to Mexico, most non-Mexican immigrants (120,000 of them) are released on their own recognizance by federal courts. It should surprise no one that they usually fail to appear for trial.

However, “American” politicians dissent from the majority view. Some people suspect that Republicans answer to powerful business interests, who see real advantages in having a low-cost labor force available for marginal enterprises; Democrats see potential voters if the “immigration reform” issue can be spun the right way. In both cases, the narrow interests of the political parties trump the desires of American voters. That can’t be good for democracy.

Ross Douthat and Jenny Dodson, “The Border,” The Atlantic, Jan.-Feb. 2006,” pp. 54-55.

Matthew Quirk, “The Mexican Connection,” The Atlantic, April 2007, pp. 26-27.

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