Despite pledging in June to adopt regulation before the end of the summer limiting deportations for millions of illegal immigrants, Barack Obama announced last weekend that he was postponing a decision on this matter until after the mid-term elections. Once again, partisan politics is preventing the adoption of a solution to a problem that has been dogging American governments for decades.
This ongoing debate over illegal immigration is not necessarily about immigration per se, but rather about how preventing temporary workers from coming to the US has degenerated into a much larger problem. And much of that problem centers on Mexican workers.
For obvious geographic and economic reasons, Mexicans have always been drawn to their northern neighbour in their search for jobs. During the Great Depression, though, jobs became scarce and many were deported. The situation changed again during WWII when many men went to war and the domestic workforce was concentrated in the war industries. There were not enough men to work in the fields, so the US government instituted the Bracero program to bring temporary contract laborers from Mexico.
The problem with the Bracero program was that a worker was tied to a single employer, thus giving rise to abuses on the part of some employers. The efforts of a farm union leader, Cesar Chavez, contributed to the cancelling of the program in 1964. Since then, farmers who want to hire migrant workers have not been able to do so legally because there are no visas for unskilled workers who want to work in the fields. As the market was thrown out of equilibrium, illegal immigration increased to unprecedented levels.
Under President Reagan, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 legalized some two million undocumented workers. However, it did not create work visas for future workers, so the problem resurfaced a few years later. It is now exacerbated by the fact that Americans are better educated and even less likely to want the low-skill jobs that immigrants would be willing to take, if only they could get the work visas.
President George W. Bush tried to find a permanent solution to undocumented immigration. He proposed to give work permits to the people who were already working without documents in the United States, and create work visas for future flows. After a reasonable effort had been made to hire an American, an employer could more easily have obtained a work visa for a foreign worker, renewable every three years.
That plan would have undercut the market for immigrant smuggling. Unfortunately, it suffered an assault from anti-immigrant groups, who repeated the mantra that it was another amnesty, although it did not in fact contemplate distributing green cards, just increasing temporary work permits.
One of these groups is the Center for Immigration Studies. CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian wrote an article at the time, "Jobs Americans Won't Do: Voodoo Economics from the White House," in which he argued that if the free movement of foreign workers were restricted, the market would adapt, and machines would be invented to replace them. Robots would pick tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. This reasoning not only runs into engineering difficulties, it presumes that the capital stock would adapt instantaneously and without cost to the changing availability of manpower.
It is true that markets can adapt to pretty much anything. In the long run, the farming industry will adapt to the lack of workers; it will do so by shrinking, hiking the prices of its products and creating less wealth and economic opportunity for everyone, Mexicans and Americans alike.
The vast majority of Mexican workers (and immigrants in general) come to the United States to work, not to collect welfare. They would rather get a temporary work visa, and move back and forth safely between Mexico and the US than pay a smuggler and risk their lives. It is the growing costs and dangers of crossing the border that have led more of them to stay in the United States longer or even settle there permanently and bring their families with them.
One obvious solution would be to distribute enough temporary work visas for the farmers to be able to hire the workers they need legally. The positive aspects of the Bracero program should be revived, while eschewing its mistakes.
This would not solve all of the country's illegal immigration problems. Over 40 per cent of illegal immigrants to the US come from countries other than Mexico. But it would certainly be better than the further militarization of the US-Mexico border.
I would like to thank Mr. Miguel Cervantes, doctoral student in Economics at Université Montpellier, for providing me with some insights on this topic.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.