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Troubled waters 

The U.S. immigration system is broken. Can Washington fix it?

click to enlarge MARK POUTENIS

Increasingly, Americans have come to look upon Latin Americans in general and Mexicans in particular in much the same way they view grizzly bears: loved in their native environment, but suspicious and often feared when they show up in America's back yards.

Before Cindy Sheehan and Hurricane Katrina blew them off the front pages, the activities of nativist, anti-migrant groups like the publicity-seeking Minuteman Civil Defense Corps were the big stories of the summer. Their message: that America is being overrun by hordes of undocumented migrants intent on stealing U.S. jobs and welfare benefits, undermining national security and tearing to rags the country's social fabric.

Minuteman critics may disagree with their tactics, or increased militarization in general, yet all sides of the current immigration debate have come to a consensus on one point: The current system is broken, and the time has arrived to repair it.

So far this year, two pieces of proposed legislation, the Secure and Orderly Immigration Act and the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act, have found support in Washington. Both have exposed the economic complexities of U.S.-Mexico relations that, like bears underneath the porch, are poised to rear their heads.

Russian Roulette or death?

Uneducated, impoverished Mexicans aren't the only ones seeking marginal employment in the United States. The economic lure is strong even for skilled and educated Mexicans, says Dina Snow, a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up on the Mexican border, in Nogales, and now owns a graphic design firm in Colorado Springs.

"There is nothing for us to do in Mexico," says Snow. "Even with a college education and the ability to speak English, it would have been almost impossible for me to find work there. There just aren't the opportunities to work in Mexico."

Mexico boasts a relatively low official unemployment rate, just 3.9 percent in 2005, according to LatinFocus, which compiles such statistics from throughout Latin America. Mexico, however, uses different statistical methodology from that of the United States.

A U.S. Department of Labor Statistics abstract explains the discrepancy: "The rates reflect the need for persons to subsist through any work at all, rather than a situation of full employment." That is to say, a person barely subsisting by selling shoelaces all day on the street is, by Mexican definition, fully and gainfully employed.

Snow feels a great deal of empathy for the poor in her former homeland.

"Even though I came here legally and with the benefit of a college education, I can identify with [undocumented immigrants'] problems. Coming from southern Mexico or Central America, your kids are hungry. Dying of hunger, perhaps. What are you going to do? Watch them die? Or play Russian Roulette [and] take your chances crossing the border illegally?

"I am not sure if it is 100 percent right," she adds. "Mexico shares in the responsibility. But people are desperate. They want to do what is best for their families.

"Working for minimum wage is nothing to U.S. citizens; you exist at poverty level. But back in Mexico, it's a big deal. Big enough that people are willing to die for that income."

Free-trade follies

The struggle to earn a living in Mexico, many argue, has been exacerbated by the very policies that were supposed to ease that plight. NAFTA, in particular, has had a disastrous effect on Mexican farm families.

Lisa Duran, executive director of Denver-based Rights for All People, works with such families. Trade agreements, especially NAFTA, she argues, are systematically destroying Mexico's traditional rural economies.

"The trade agreements advocated by the U.S. -- NAFTA, CAFTA, and the General Agreement on Trade & Tariffs [GATT] -- have destroyed local economies," she says. "We have a lot of stories among our members of the family farm that used to provide a living. But sometime after 1996, their commodities became unable to compete with ConAgra and other U.S. agribusiness firms in the global market."

Duran's assertions are backed by reports in the Latin American press and demographic data on Mexican migrants themselves. Increasingly, migrants hail from southern states, rather than the traditional emigration states further north.

click to enlarge MARK POUTENIS

In December 2002, farm workers from the southern states protested against falling farm prices. Mexican President Vicente Fox promised to seek changes in NAFTA's agricultural provisions to protect the 25 million Mexicans living in rural areas. So far, the trade agreement has not been amended, and Fox has just one year left in office.

The problems for rural Mexicans, Duran notes, are made worse by the displacement of Central Americans, who migrate to Mexico to escape military violence, natural disasters and faltering economies back home. Indeed, Mexico has its own immigration issues, as hundreds of thousands of refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua come north in search of sanctuary.

A "cheap labor addiction"

How Americans deal with the undocumented worker issue largely depends on who prevails in an ongoing congressional debate.

On one side are conservative Republicans who advocate increased border enforcement, repatriation of undocumented migrants, and punitive fines for employers who hire undocumented workers in the United States.

On the other side is a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats who support a conditional amnesty program for those already living and working here, reinvigorated and expansive guest workers programs, and increased border enforcement.

U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., espouses the hard-line approach. Representing a mainly Caucasian constituency of suburbanites outside Denver, Tancredo has felt scorn from the local and national press for unwittingly hiring an undocumented immigrant to complete a home remodeling project, and for objecting to Spanish-language materials in Denver's public libraries.

But as a congressman, Tancredo has stirred up the furor for immigration reform and helped to steer Republican policy-making in his direction.

Speaking to the Independent, Tancredo describes the issue in black-and-white terms.

"America's illegal immigration problem is the result of two things: We have an addiction to cheap foreign labor, and countries that are contributing to that labor are addicted to remittances," he says.

Mexican workers sent about $13 billion to family members in Mexico in 2003, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, making remittance Mexico's second most important revenue source, behind petroleum.

One wonders, however, how Mexico would replace that income and employ millions of repatriated workers if the United States actually spent the $230 billion that the Center for American Progress, an immigration think tank, estimates it could cost to deport every undocumented Mexican.

In speeches and interviews to date, Tancredo hasn't addressed that issue. He does, however, say that Congress has lacked the will to address America's immigration issues because its members fear disapproval from the business community.

Although Tancredo supports some kind of guest worker program, he expects substantial opposition to such reforms.

"Several things are not attractive to employers in regard to guest worker programs," he says. "There are constraints on how long an employee can remain in the country, and employers don't want to train people only to have them leave. Employers don't want wages set for them, and they don't want to adhere to benefits programs. It's far easier and cheaper for them to hire undocumented workers and keep them off the books.

"But," he adds, "if we secure the border and fine employees for breaking the law, we could have an effect."

'Enforcement through deterrence'

From 1980 to 1995, the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) budget for border enforcement increased sevenfold; it then tripled between 1995 and 2001.

The U.S. government erected massive fences topped with concertina wire and installed motion detectors, ground-pressure sensors and night-to-day lighting systems along miles of border near popular urban crossing points between Tijuana and San Diego; Juarez and El Paso, Texas; Mexicali and Calexico, Calif.; and Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Ariz.

Thousands of new border patrol officers were added to the government payroll. The policy, termed "enforcement through deterrence," is based on the premise that apprehension deters illegal immigration.

click to enlarge Mexican nationals peer through the border wall along - San Ysidro, Calif., in late August. Since enforcement has - increased along traditional crossing sites in California - and Texas, more Mexican migrants are crossing into - New Mexico and Arizona. - SANDY HUFFAKER
  • Sandy Huffaker
  • Mexican nationals peer through the border wall along San Ysidro, Calif., in late August. Since enforcement has increased along traditional crossing sites in California and Texas, more Mexican migrants are crossing into New Mexico and Arizona.

Not only has the policy been a failure, it has been costly and even deadly.

A study prepared in 2002 by the Public Policy Institute of California looked at the effects of the border buildup on unauthorized immigration. Among its key findings: There is no evidence that border enforcement buildup has substantially reduced unauthorized crossings.

Instead, the report notes, migrants have moved to more remote crossing areas in the desert and on desolate ranches in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, making enforcement and apprehension even more difficult, and costly.

According to Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey, the United States is spending $1,700 on each immigrant it apprehends, versus $100 in 1986. Massey notes that big increases in enforcement spending over the last 20 years have not only been ineffective, but also counterproductive; ironically, harsher enforcement policies may actually be contributing to illegal immigration into the United States.

By making it more difficult to come into the country, the policies encourage migrants to stay longer in the United States in order to recover the costs of paying off coyotes, human traffickers who charge as much as $1,500 per person to lead people across.

According to INS data, migrant deaths have shot upward from fewer than 200 in 1995 to an average of more than 400 annually in recent years. According to the University of Houston Center for Immigration Studies, causes of death include exposure to extreme heat and cold, drowning, vehicle-pedestrian accidents, homicide and suffocation in the cramped and unventilated holds of automobiles, trucks and containers.

The great wait

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act, naturalizing 2.3 million Mexican immigrants and paving the way for even more through a family reunification program. In a single stroke, the act also modified the traditional pattern of back-and-forth migration of mainly young, single Mexican men, replacing it with one that encouraged entire families to migrate.

Although reunification was one stated goal of the legislation, America, for the most part, never followed through on the paperwork to make this happen.

Amber Tafoya, an attorney with the Southern Colorado Center for Immigrant Rights at Catholic Charities in Pueblo, says the backlog of applicants waiting to have their relatives from Mexico join them legally dates back as far as 1987, one year after the legislation took effect.

"In other words, the wait for many families is decades," says Tafoya, who helps migrants weave through the maze of immigration laws, the bulk of which she compares unfavorably to the U.S. tax code.

"After waiting 10 or 15 years, many make the courageous decision that they are going to reunify their families. You'd think people who speak about family values would understand that, that they would try to streamline the process. Yet we blame the victims and say they are here breaking our laws, when what is broken is the system."

Taking 'illegal' off the table

Of the two immigration bills Congress currently is scrutinizing, the more enforcement-oriented is the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act.

Proposed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., it's seen as the "tougher" of the bills. It concentrates on increasing the Border Patrol presence and enforcing current laws. Its language emphasizes a decrease in human trafficking, which can go hand-in-hand with drug smuggling and documentation fraud.

The new twist to this essentially Reagan-era approach is the "guest worker program," by which current immigrants would return to their home countries, then apply for visas that would allow them entry to the U.S. for a period of six years.

The Secure Orderly Immigration Act, however, has gained more support on both sides of the aisle.

Introduced by a bipartisan coalition of elected officials -- including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., as well as Arizona Republican legislators Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake -- it seeks to naturalize the vast majority of workers already in the United States. It forces them to pay fines and line up behind the hundreds of thousands who already have waded through the legal process.

It also forces employers to first seek U.S. citizens to fill jobs. Only if they cannot are those employers allowed to contract with foreign workers.

The Secure and Orderly Immigration Act is also finding support among immigration reform advocates like Doug Rivlin of the National Immigration Forum.

"The question before us is: Do we continue to put our heads in the sand and have a guest worker program called 'illegal immigration,' or do we create a legal guest worker system that actually addresses the real situation in America and Mexico?" Rivlin asks.

"If you have 11 million people who aren't part of society, who don't know if they will be here next week, you create a marginalized, underground economy that feeds the black market and is dangerous to this country and its security," he says.

"Many of the things that critics find wrong with the current system have to do with illegalities. By taking these off the table, then many of the concerns of the critics, like Tom Tancredo and the Minuteman groups, will be eliminated as well."

  • The U.S. immigration system is broken. Can Washington fix it?

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