An Immigration Bargain

March 22, 2002

When President George W. Bush meets with his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox in Monterrey today, a historic immigration bargain will be on the table. Undoubtedly, security makes a claim on our immigration policy as never before. After Sept. 11, the United States needs a migration agreement with teeth.

Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, regards the disorderly southern border as our most challenging. The answer is not to ”close down” that border, were that even possible, and thus to junk NAFTA and tip Mexico and the American Southwest into economic crisis. Together with Mexico we should fashion a ”smart border” with preclearance for goods, fast lanes for frequent travelers, and modern detection devices. In addition, Mexico must accept shared responsibility for controlling our common border.

The Border Patrol has had some success in stemming the flow of illegals immigrants, but ”success” has cost a significant toll in Mexican lives. If Mexico were to place dangerous zones off-limits, together we could make the border safe. Mexican federal officials and state governments indicate willingness to take these actions if their migrants can become legal in sufficient number.

Mexican migration must be transformed from the chaotic, dangerous, habitual, and illegal to the regulated, safe, selective, and legal. One popular proposal is to create a new guest worker program for Mexicans. But guest worker programs have proved costly, difficult to manage, and illusory, with the result that, as critics say, ”nothing is more permanent than a temporary worker.” If we decide, nevertheless, to institute a guest worker program, it should start as an experiment in a few states.

Why not simply increase Mexican visas temporarily until 2015, when Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda has said that Mexican migration, because of declining fertility and economic growth, will ”peter out”? Accordingly, the number of additional visas should decrease each year until 2015. By that year the current quota of Mexican visas (75,000) would constitute the totality of Mexican migration to the United States.

Though immigrants in their vast majority pose no threat, we would be safest if all immigrants were accounted for, including those here illegally. Yet we cannot reward those who broke our laws to get here lest we encourage more illegal immigration. We need a program of earned legalization combined with the reinvigoration of workplace sanctions.

By participating in a point system, unauthorized migrants could earn a permanent visa and eventually citizenship. Points would be earned for integrating into American life by holding a job, learning English, living in a community, obeying laws, and learning American civic values. Participants would not be eligible for means-tested government benefits. Those wishing to become legal would also pay a fine for entering the country illegally. Should a pilot guest worker program be established, they would enter that program for a stipulated number of years.

Earned legalization must be sufficiently stringent to discourage illegal immigration, something the 1986 ”amnesty” failed to do. That is why the program must be linked not only to shared US and Mexican border responsibility but also to regularly enforced employer sanctions. Those sanctions should be directed against employers breaking the law, not workers organizing.

Under a regime of employer sanctions, unauthorized migrants not applying for earned legalization would be rejected for their next job. Barred from government benefits, they will have no recourse but to return to Mexico. The illegal population would be compressed by a combination of legalization and return.

Mexico does not see migration as a long-term answer, and the United States should not think controlling the border is the solution to illegal Mexican immigration. The final component of an immigration bargain with Mexico involves the economic development of what are now ”sender” communities in central and southern Mexico, providing jobs at home for would-be migrants. The two presidents should convene private donors and nongovernment organizations and use their influence in multilateral lending organizations to encourage infrastructure and education investments in those zones.

The United States has a strategic interest in seeing Mexico emerge as a prosperous buffer against unauthorized migration. Mexico can extend the security perimeter against terrorism by supervising its own borders and by building the rule of law in Mexico. The United States should assist in that endeavor.