By Emil Pulsifer
Whatever your position on
the difficult issue of immigration, looming events make the need for
comprehensive immigration reform more important than ever, for America as a
whole and for Arizona in particular. Mexico's proven oil reserves
are dwindling fast and may be exhausted at the current rate of production
within less than ten years: the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)
estimates that Mexico will become a net oil importer by 2017.
Why is this a source of
concern for America in general and Arizona in particular?
First, is the fact that Mexico has consistently been one of the top three sources of America's imported oil (with Canada and Saudi Arabia). As of late 2009, Mexico was the second largest source of America's imported oil. More importantly from the standpoint of immigration policy is the reality that oil exports constitute Mexico's largest source of legal revenues (about 40 percent); second to this, and larger than tourism, are the remittances sent home by immigrants working in foreign countries (chiefly the United States). Remittances are, in fact, so large a component of Mexico's economy, that they constitute a peculiar form of foreign investment. So, barring rosy developments in Mexico's oil industry, and unless the United States takes an even greater nosedive than Mexico is going to in coming years, expect massive immigration, on a scale to make the recent wave look puny, within a decade.
The new Chicontepec oilfield
megaproject, which is the last, best hope to replace the declining Cantarell
main field, may delay that -- its reserves are estimated to be huge -- but
thus far its output is disappointing; and while official Mexican
government estimates suggest that full production might be
reached by 2017, many independent industry experts are skeptical that it
will ever become profitable; and Mexico's economic
problems have created fiscal pressures which make continued
government financing (in the face of poor results) doubtful.
Thus, the availability and commitment of investment capital for the project remains
Much of the problem, as the EIA reports, is that "Chicontepec is very challenging technically" due to the heaviness of the crude, the highly fractured reservoir, and the low pressure therein; also that "the region does not yet have much of the necessary infrastructure for large-scale oil development, such as pipelines, which must be built amongst a dense, urban population". In other words, the field's oil exists in numerous small pockets, each requiring its own well and special equipment to recover the oil, and on top of this, requires the creation of an entire basic infrastructure to exploit.
Mexican government oil company, Pemex, plays the role of sugar-daddy in a socio-political system dependent for its basic functioning on its largesse: subsidies to keep the price of basic foodstuffs available to the poor; healthcare; sanitation, water, and electrification; all of this and more is heavily underwritten by oil export revenues. Oil money is also the glue which holds together Mexico's patronage-based political system. If, as the EIA predicts, Mexico will become a net importer of oil by 2017, the resulting economic and political destabilization can only result in a massive exodus, as immigrants seek jobs in other countries to support themselves and their extended families back home.
This brings us back to the immigration issue. In the modern era, immigration controls have included physical barriers, entry documentation, border patrol enforcement, workplace raids on undocumented immigrant employees, and more recently, employer sanctions, as well as increased attempts at local enforcement. Thus far, existing methods of immigration control have proven to be, at best, of marginal effectiveness; a fact which everyone, from those advocating tightened immigration controls to those advocating open borders, can agree upon (though the reasons for this failure remain an issue of controversy). New proposals attempt to address the root of the matter, the economic motivation of undocumented immigrants, by making the right to work contingent upon citizenship or legal residency, enforced by means of a national identification card or some similar tool. Let's take a quick look at the vulnerabilities of existing and proposed methods:
The first, physical barriers, is familiar in the basic form of a giant wall, already constructed along portions of the southern border of the United States. There is no question of the enormous expense involved in completing such a project; but advocates of immigration control argue that this expense is warranted. Current methods of drug and human smuggling show that individuals will simply dig tunnels to go under it, use simple wooden ramps to get over it, bulldoze it, crash vehicles through it or dynamite it, or simply go around it.
Thus, it would appear that a static barrier like a wall is of little ultimate use unless the border along it can be effectively patrolled. But, unlike the case of tiny Israel, whom border control advocates often cite as a model, the southern border of the United States with Mexico extends some 2,000 land miles. Patrolling it effectively would take a full-time citizen army, another enormous expense. Would even this be effective?
The southern phalanx is even more easily thwarted. For example, Mexican tourists far outnumber illegal immigrants from that country; according to the University of Arizona's Eller School of Management, approximately 24 million legal tourists and shoppers enter the United States from Mexico every year. The United States cannot economically or politically afford to close its border to all Mexican visitors. Yet, a border crossing card or "laser visa" can be obtained by Mexican citizens at minimal expense and with minimal difficulty. There is nothing to prevent those who intend to immigrate illegally from crossing, legally, easily and inexpensively, with proper identification, but also carrying a set of false identification and a non-declarable amount (less than $10,000) in cash, money orders, or travellers checks, ostensibly as tourists or day shoppers, with which to start a new life after gaining entry.
Even if the southern border were hermetically sealed, there remains the northern border. At first, this might seem irrelevant, since Canada is not a source for large numbers of undocumented immigrants, at least not those native to Canada. However, a recent newspaper article quoted an Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman as saying that undocumented Mexican immigrants typically pay from $1,500 to $2,000 to "coyotes" (professional human smugglers) to get them across the border; then often extorting even more money to allow them to continue to their next destination inside the country.
A cursory check of online airfares shows that the price of a ticket from Mexico to Ontario may be had for as little as $225 for a single fare; and no doubt a charter fare would be cheaper still. Even with car rental, lodging along the way, and other incidental expenses, it would actually be much cheaper, easier, and safer for Mexican immigrants to fly to Canada, then cross at any of a number of border areas: unlike the southern border, the (far longer) northern border is virtually unpatrolled in most areas. (Of course, such immigrants might also choose to stay in Canada, thought it might be that Canadian immigration controls, vis a vis employment, are more stringent than in the United States, or that undocumented Mexican immigrants might stand out more there than in the southwestern and certain other areas of the United States.)
On a wholesale level, this might require a whole new smuggling infrastructure to get northern border crossers to their destinations within the United States; the point remains that water will find its own level, and the greater the pressure at the pump end, the faster new holes will be found.
As for sporadic and scattered workplace raids, even the staunchest immigration opponents will admit that this method is largely symbolic; they must also admit, given the continued presence of 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, that even as a psychological deterrent this is an ineffective method of immigration control. Employer sanctions, carried out on a similar scale, are similarly ineffective and have the additional burden of requiring prosecutors to prove intent on the part of the employer. Systematic inspection is beyond any practical budget or manpower.
The same can be said for local law enforcement efforts. Some of the highest profile actions in the nation, in this regard, have taken place in Maricopa County, Arizona, under the supervision of Sheriff Joe Arpaio; but however useful to him as a political stunt, the detention of a couple dozen illegal immigrants once every two months, can scarcely make a dent in a state where half a million undocumented workers have been estimated to reside; and though this number may have decreased in response to the recent economic crisis, this is scarcely a reliable method of immigration control, particularly if Mexico's economy goes to hell in a handbasket within a decade.
That leaves the strategy of a national ID card or right to work card, using biometric data such as digitized fingerprints. This might work, but only if properly implemented.
The problem is that fingerprints may not lie, but they don't prove citizenship either. The ID card is supposed to prove citizenship or at least legal residency status, but what proves that the individual applying for the card deserves one? Things like Social Security numbers and birth certificates, and as we all know, those can be fabricated, stolen or forged.
So, the problem devolves to a chicken and egg paradox: in order to prove citizenship you have to have the card; but in order to get the card you have to prove citizenship, by other means. What are those means and how secure are they? Here's an interesting case where someone got a high-tech passport (with biometrics) using a dead-man's Social Security number:
Then, there is the traditional approach. Before World War I, Russia and Turkey were the only countries which required entering foreigners to have a passport. Thus, for most of America's history, it had an "open borders" policy, and this reflected its "traditional values". Not until the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 did the United States establish permanent immigration limits.
When considering policy reforms, it's useful to compare current immigration limits to the period before and after Johnson-Reed. In the first decade of the 20th century, for example, about 200,000 Italians immigrated to the United States each year. In 1900 the U.S. population was about 78 million. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, from 2000 to 2005, the annual rate of entry of illegal immigrants was 525,000, of which about 60 percent were Mexican; but the population of the United States was 281 million in 2000. Thus, as a percentage of the population, the total number of illegal immigrants in modern times has been smaller than the number of Italians alone immigrating here when immigration quotas did not exist. They should thus have been more easily absorbed than earlier waves of immigrants.
Somehow, the country survived the Italian wave, and today, your great-grandmother's fears of swarthy, greasy Italians, "breeding like rabbits," importing their secret societies and criminal tendencies, shouting "Whatsamatter you?" in their illiterate pidgin while menacing random passersby with their flick-knives, seems quaintly amusing. Two or three generations of assimilation and intermixing fixed "the problem", just as it did with the Irish and other groups, none of which are, 100 years or more later, considered particularly undesirable.
The usual argument is that immigrants ought to be satisfied to wait and immigrate legally, as others have: that others have not, for most of the country's history, is a matter of fact; but even in comparison to latter days, when immigration quotas did exist, there is something peculiarly artificial about contemporary quota numbers.
As the current Visa Bulletin (January 2010) makes clear, "the annual per-country limitation of 7 percent is a cap, meaning visa issuances to any single country may not exceed this figure." This means that, with small exceptions for political refugees and certain other classes, no more than 25,620 Mexican immigrants may come to the United States per year. In fact, even in 1924 under the highly restrictive Johnson-Reed Act mentioned above, fully twice this number of Germans (51,227) was permitted annual entry; and that was during a time when the population of the United States was only about a third of its present size, and thus less easily able to assimilate large numbers of immigrants.
So, the annual cap is undoubtedly small, both in traditional terms and even by the modern standards of America's first quota system under Johnson-Reed. Taking the Pew Center's figures above, we find that roughly 315,000 undocumented Mexicans entered annually on average, each year from 2000 to 2005. If the would-be Mexican immigrants from a single such year were to wait patiently for the line to vacate, in order to enter legally, it would take more than 12 years for that number of individuals to be granted immigration visas, at a rate of 25,620 per year; and that does not even consider the already existing backlog of previous years, as well as an equal number of would-be immigrants adding to this each following year. Shall we ask immigrants to wait, patiently, for the length of their lives, because the law is the law; or should the law be reformed? There were, evidently, jobs available (many of which involved difficult manual labor); and if Arizona's unemployment rate of 4.1 percent in 2005 was any indication, there was little crowding out of the native population by immigrants, legal or illegal.
Could the country handle the traditional approach to immigration, a "libertarian" scenario in which the market supposedly determines immigration rates by means of economic mechanisms, with the quantity of immigration determined by the amount of work available to foreign labor?
It may be that open citizenship (subject to criminal background screening and a training & probationary period) will provide a tonic to the ills commonly attributed to illegal immigration. A citizen can unionize; a citizen can strive to increase his wages (whether through collective or personal bargaining); a citizen can demand his legal rights under the law for such things as overtime pay, workmen's compensation in case of accident, and workplace safety; a citizen has definite tax responsibilities, beyond those of payroll taxes automatically deducted. The ability of employers to evade their civic responsibilities is clearly greater in the case of illegal immigrants than for citizen employees.
Employers who want to exploit illegal foreign labor at low wages or for unpaid overtime or under unsafe conditions, need a frightened, coercible labor pool: this is provided by the combination of a permeable border, together with ineffective but high-profile law enforcement activity against illegal immigrants. Even Sheriff Arpaio's sweeps, Arizona Senator Russell Pearce's seldom enforced employer sanctions legislation, and ICE's scattered factory raids, are integral components of the status quo. As the Arizona Republic observed in its recent decade-in-review series, "On April 10, a sprawling crowd estimated at 200,000 marched to the State Capitol. The mega-marches in Phoenix and other cities sought to cast undocumented immigrants as hard workers who contribute to the nation's economy in hopes of generating public support in favor of laws allowing them to earn citizenship."
Since Pearce introduced his employer sanctions legislation, and Arpaio began his immigrant roundup sweeps, the marches, along with the hopes (and agitation) for amnesty, have since vanished amongst the immigrant population; whereas hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants remain in Arizona to diligently toil in the hope, now, simply of being allowed to work without harassment.
Perhaps it is naive to believe that open immigration policies would result in anything but a surfeit of low wage labor, whose very excess of supply, coupled with the low expectations and living standards of impoverished foreigners, could do nothing other than depress domestic wage and benefit scales for existing citizens. But illegal immigration already produces such a surfeit, in boom times; and the existence of a frightened and easily coerced underclass of undocumented immigrants provides still greater opportunities for the exploitation of labor and the special advantages this gives this gives those who employ them.
Ultimately, the only way to ease immigration pressures may be to ensure plentiful jobs in Mexico for its own citizens, and through these to raise their standard of living so that the income differential between Mexico and the United States is small enough to be outweighed by the pleasures of cultural affinity, family unity, and linguistic ease for those who remain in the land of their birth.
There are essentially two methods of accomplishing this. One is massive foreign investment on a scale unlike anything to be currently found. I will leave it to the reader to consider how likely this will be in an era when Mexico's basic infrastructure and political cohesion disintegrates due to lack of oil revenues. The second would require Mexico to create massive state enterprises to employ its people, producing as much of the products for its own consumption as possible using its own resources and workers, funding this by money created by its own central bank for this purpose, and only importing what the country could not provide itself.
Provided that the money was actually used to create efficient and productive enterprises employing countless millions at good wages, rather than going to line the pockets of the elite, the result would not be inflationary, since the increased demand produced by the newly underwritten job wages, would be met by the increased production of the newly underwritten state enterprises. The U.S. could ease this transition by providing massive business and technical expertise (not financing) to ensure efficient production and distribution systems -- again, highly important if the result is to be an improved standard of living for Mexico's citizens, rather than inflation, shortages, and rationing.
Another possibility (eventually) would be to shift part of the pay of the workers of these enterprises (including managers) into credits usable for the purchase of any goods or services produced by any of the state enterprises (including housing and healthcare). In addition to limiting the amount of money needed to finance the projects, and acting as a mechanism to provide a variable monetary brake, this would insure that payroll remained part of the productive economy instead of being siphoned off into financial bubbles by private speculators; additionally, it might incentivize production quality. However, the effect on quality might eventually be negative if it should lead to the restriction of consumer choice, which is why I remain skeptical in wondering if more than partial "pay in credits" might not eventually prove more trouble than it was worth.
Private enterprise would continue unhindered, but would have to compete with the state's non-profit enterprises in those fields (e.g., manufacturing) where the activities of the public and private sectors should happen to overlap. Let the consumer decide which is superior. Those who decided that additional quality was to be found at an additional price, would be free to buy from private vendors, provided they could afford to, just as Americans have a choice, when shopping for luggage, between Wal-Mart and Louis Vuitton.
The country could eventually form trading blocs with similarly organized neighbors so that each member nation could obtain the things it needs to import on the most favorable terms, perhaps by direct barter.
That Mexico could absorb large numbers of additional workers is not in doubt: largely underdeveloped, especially in its vast rural areas, it needs, on a massive scale, new factories, housing, schools, trucking and railroad systems, energy generation and distribution networks, telecommunications networks, hospitals and clinics, marketplaces, water purification and delivery systems, roadways, sanitation systems, etc.; and countless secondary structures and infrastructure required to support and elaborate this.
Instead of using scarce capital to import increasingly expensive energy resources (e.g., oil) in the coming years, Mexico could use economies of scale and freedom of action in its state enterprises to establish alternative energy generation and distribution on a federal scale, using only the money necessary to do this, since profits would not be sought and executive salaries would be capped at moderate levels. Within a few decades, Mexico could narrow the standard of living gap between itself and its neighbor to the north, achieve self-sufficiency and the pride of accomplishment, and become a model for the rest of Latin America.
All classes of persons would be invited to participate in the building of the nation. Mr. Hernandez would still own the corner barbershop. The cafe next to it would still be owned and operated by the Ortegas, and passed on to their children as they wished. Nobody's bank account would be seized; their money isn't needed. Nobody's mansion would be seized: one can't house the surrounding slums by doing so. The only way to improve the lot of the common man is to do so, constructively, broadly, and patiently. Instead of driving away the best and brightest through internal repression, or building up a large military and scaring one's neighbors with threats to incite revolution, the country would build a consumer society, address the social needs of its citizens, and quietly lead by example.
A tall order, but not strictly impossible. What's the alternative? More walls? Don't put your trust in walls, 'cause walls will only crush you when they fall...