Open U.S.-Mexican Border

Gregory Michaelidis is writing a dissertation on Macedonian migration and nationalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Both Al Gore and George W. Bush used recent speeches to herald the contributions of immigrants to America. Their speeches, and the Elian Gonzalez case, have moved the immigration issue—always simmering in the background—to the front burner of this election year.

Yet the politician who has done the most to bring the immigration debate to a full boil is someone who doesn’t even hold office in this country.

In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox predicted a future in which people will move freely across the 2,100-mile border between Mexico and the United States by 2010. A rapidly growing Mexican economy, Mr. Fox argued, would create a job and wage boom that would render illegal immigration irrelevant.

Though out of touch with current reality in the United States, Mr. Fox’s vision for North America needs to be taken seriously, if only because it is already coming true in other parts of the world.

Predictably, talk of an open border with Mexico has riled a diverse set of voices. Mr. Bush immediately distanced himself from Mr. Fox’s position by stating his doubts that the United States could ever tolerate open borders. Newsweek’s Robert J. Samuelson singled out high Mexican immigration as contributing to ethnic balkanization and argued that the U.S. economy should not serve as a “sponge” for Mexico’s poor.

Mr. Fox’s statements certainly earn him low marks for political sensitivity to American concerns. Mexican illegal immigrants comprise more than half of the estimated 5 million undocumented workers in the United States, and recent pleas for a blanket amnesty for illegals cast doubt on the credibility of U.S. immigration authorities. Even in a booming economy, many illegal workers are unemployed. The many who work are often subjected to shameful conditions with few legal protections.

Yet critics of Mr. Fox’s vision are missing the bigger point.

Immigrants deserve much credit for the spectacular U.S. economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has argued that sustaining economic growth and low inflation may require actually loosening immigration restrictions. In that regard, the United States is in an enviable position with respect to some of its major trading partners in Europe, which will need to import hundreds of thousands of workers in coming decades to keep their economies from shrinking.

Mr. Samuelson’s criticism of high Mexican immigration also puts too much emphasis on the number of immigrants the United States should let in while leaving aside the more fundamental questions of what the country should do to incorporate immigrants into the mainstream and mitigate economic forces, such as globalization, that fuel migrant streams in the first place.

Mr. Fox’s vision for North America’s future is not particularly outrageous in light of changes in thinking about national borders in recent decades. For example, his futurescape is already in Europe, where the European Union’s elimination of barriers allows EU citizens freedom of movement among the member states. In Mr. Fox’s view, a North American union similar to the EU would allow for such freedom.

Mr. Fox also is on to something when he says that an open border could virtually end migration to the United States so long as growth and development of Mexico’s economy makes migration north a less attractive option.

The image persists of the developing world as a boundless horde of unskilled workers yearning for American shores. The reality is that the number who will migrate to America is finite and does not include the poorest of the poor, who can seldom afford the costs of migration. Historically, remigration to home countries, which still runs nearly 30 percent a year, tends to increase in tough economic times, therefore mitigating the problem of jobless migrants.

Singling out an immigrant group for criticism, especially Mexicans, is simply allowing bad history to inform bad policy. The U.S. government already strains to live down its reputation for loving cheap Mexican labor when things are good but disparaging Mexicans when its economic prosperity and cultural unity feel less secure. And as Mexico edges closer to becoming our biggest trading partner, a reevaluation of our border policies is inevitable.

The trend toward more porous borders in North America should be seen as one of evolution and not eventual cataclysm. With several exceptions owing to periods of war, depression and nativism, high perpetual migration to and from America has been the norm for nearly 400 years. When we do eventually move toward more open borders with our neighbors, as they have in the past, the ramparts of the Republic will stand, and be stronger for it.