Fixing Immigration Policy

Bill Ong Hing

We have militarized the border through Operation Gatekeeper, pushing border crossers into treacherous terrain, resulting in hundreds of deaths since the 1990s. We have raided businesses, homes, and neighborhoods, often separating children from their parents for days or weeks. We have prosecuted human rights volunteers in the Arizona desert who provided food, water, and emergency medical care to the undocumented. We have encouraged private vigilantes to enforce a twisted sense of national security that results in armed ranchers pointing loaded assault weapons at teenage girls. In the words of the New York Times, we live in the era of “The Great Immigration Panic,” where we have “harmed count- less lives, wasted billions of dollars and mocked the nation’s most deeply held values.”1

A State of Denial

Anti-immigrant advocates are in a state of denial. Their complaints continue to stand on a shaky foundation – namely, that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, take jobs from native workers. In fact, for the past two decades, economists have concluded that immigrants fill jobs that go unfilled. Perhaps more importantly, the presence of immigrants actually helps to create jobs. Immigrants are consumers, and their demand for services and products creates the need for more workers to provide those services and produce the goods. Time and again, studies demonstrate that regions of the country with the most immigrants actually have the lowest unemployment rates, and those regions with the fewest immigrants have the highest unemployment rates.2

The U.S. also faces a new demographic reality that contradicts the immigration naysayers: the retirement of the baby boom generation. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke has concluded that the U.S. economy will need 3.5 million additional laborers each year to replace the 78 million baby boomers who began to retire in 2008.

Without an adequate national visa system to accommodate the flow of needed immigrant workers, market forces have made adjustments through the employment of undocumented workers. Undocumented immigrants account for about 4.3 percent of the civilian labor force – approximately 6.3 mil- lion workers out of a labor force of 146 million.3 Although they can be found in many sectors of the economy, undocumented workers tend to be over- represented in certain occupations and industries. Three times as many undocumented immigrants work in agriculture, construction, and extraction as do U.S. citizens.4 Though management, business, professions, sales, and administrative sup- port account for half of native citizen workers (52 percent), almost one-quarter of the undocumented workers are in these areas (23 percent).5 The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the United Nations offer data supportive of Bernanke’s observations and explain why the market for undocumented workers has burgeoned as it has. The BLS estimates that the number of people in the labor force who are 55 and older is increasing at six times the rate of those who are 25 to 34. According to estimates by the UN, the fertility rate in the U.S. is projected to fall below replacement level by 2015 to 2020, declining to 1.91 children per woman. Given the baby boomer retirement rate, by 2030, one in every five Americans is projected to be a senior citizen.

Even as the U.S. population ages and retires, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country will continue to experience job growth. Close to 40 percent of all jobs require only short-term on-the-job training. In fact, of the top ten largest job-growth occupations, only two require a college degree. Indeed, six of the top ten occupations only require short-term on-the-job training.6

Shortages of essential workers are not limited to the largest growth occupations. Without immigrants, a net deficit of 70,000 workers could accrue in the roofing industry by 2012. The restaurant industry foresees the addition of almost two million jobs to the next ten years, an increase of 15 percent. However, the 16-to-24-year-old labor force – the demographic that makes up more than half of the restaurant industry workforce – is only projected to increase 9 percent during the next decade.

Without a doubt, we need immigrant workers of all stripes.

Heading North After NAFTA

We were told that the North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA) involving the U.S., Canada, and Mexico would fix the undocumented Mexican migration problem. NAFTA would promote economic development in Mexico, creating jobs that would keep Mexicans home. In a non-protectionist, free trade environment, each country would specialize in areas and products where each had a comparative advantage. Middle-class jobs would flourish in every region, and poor countries would prosper. Opponents of NAFTA warned that U.S. jobs would be lost to Mexico, where the low-wage workforce would undercut higher-paid U.S. workers. Harsh, but a good sign for Mexico, right?

Somehow, things did not turn out that way. Mexico has lost far more jobs than it has gained under NAFTA. Incredibly, because of the way NAFTA operates and U.S. farm subsidies work, for example, Mexico, where corn is the staff of life, is now importing most of its corn from the U.S. Mexican corn farmers have gone out of business, undercut by U.S. prices. Those farm workers have lost their jobs, and where do they look for work? That’s right – to El Norte.

Instead of reducing undocumented migration, half a million Mexican migrants continue to flow across the border annually. NAFTA was a half-baked idea that left out the ingredients needed to bolster the Mexican economy – a true partnership including serious support for infrastructure and development and labor visas, much like what the wealthy nations of the European Union have done for their poorer members.

Instead, we are left with a neighbor to the south that has a broken economy, losing more and more ground under NAFTA daily, while its undocumented workers continue to flow north. Undocumented migration has steadily increased, as the effects of NAFTA and the devaluation of the peso continue to be felt. As they enter, the migrants are greeted by a hostile environment fueled by xenophobes who fail to grasp or acknowledge the role that the U.S. has played in the forced migration of those who are essentially economic refugees.

Further militarization of the border and stepped up interior enforcement target the victims of a globalized economy. U.S. culpability and responsibility may be hard to admit. But it’s time to own up.

Friend, Not Foe

Understanding the effects of NAFTA and other aspects of the globalized economy can give us the foundation for a better approach to reducing the flow of Mexican workers to the U.S. As we develop a new vision, we should remain cognizant of our historical as well as continuing economic and social relationship with Mexico. After all, Mexico is a friend, not an enemy.

A new vision of the border should embrace the following elements:
• Open labor migration akin to the policy in place in the European Union (EU) that allows free migration of citizens between member states – in essence an open border.
• Substantial investment in Mexico’s economy and infrastructure to enable Mexico to create jobs and maintain its ability to compete on the global economic stage and thus aid its primary trading partners – the U.S. and Canada. This would also reduce migration pressures between the countries as evidenced in the EU.
• Broaden the permanent visa system to reflect the real visa demands for labor and family reunification.

In contrast to the failure of NAFTA to incorporate labor migration in its provisions, the evolution of the EU has proceeded with the mobility of workers in mind. The EU permits open labor and engages in development assistance to poorer nations to reduce migration pressures, yet maintains border control.7 This is done with a commitment to “harmonizing” labor standards among member nations in terms of wages, work week, and other labor cost factors.8 Economic development aid has been provided to poorer countries like Spain and Portugal, to strengthen economic opportunities throughout the region (and lessen the pressure to migrate). Other labor needs were anticipated.9 In order to ease mobility of workers, a European Social Fund provides vocational training and retraining. This is flexible enough to adopt to business needs in different member countries.10 The idea is that, if the EU truly wants to integrate its member nations’ economies, the free movement of workers is necessary, and they should have the right to accept employment in any member nation.11 And the workers’ families have the right to follow and establish new residence with the workers.12

EU Solidarity

The EU approach to labor migration has been thoughtful and deliberate. Beginning with the EU’s 1973 expansion to include Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, the British pushed for an approach to aid poorer regions as an antecedent to membership. When Greece (1981), and Portugal and Spain (1986) were added, all three nations as well as Ireland received infusions of capital and assistance with institutional planning. This shared-responsibility model was based on “a commitment to the values of internal solidarity and mutual support.”13

This approach worked. The gap between the poorer and richer nations narrowed. By the beginning of the new millennium, Ireland’s economy had been transformed, and its per capita GDP was above the EU average. Incredibly, Ireland – a nation that for generations had been a place of steady outward emigration – began attracting immigrants. Across Europe, the feared “mass migration of the unemployed” fizzled. People stayed in their own countries because work opportunities were created.14

The EU example is one we should carefully consider. North America is not the same type of union. However, the underlying values of mutual assistance for all trading partners are worthy of emulation. Countries of North America would be smart to develop a new approach in view of the mounting economic prowess of the EU as well as countries like China.

Mexico’s infrastructure – roads, schools, telecommunications – needs attention. A national plan for infrastructure and transportation has not been developed.15 Reducing geographical disparities within Mexico would likely decrease pressures to emigrate, and a first priority should be improving the road system from the U.S. border to the central

and southern parts of Mexico.16 Better roads improve conditions for travelers, but better roads are also necessary for greater trade and the economy. If that were done, foreign as well as domestic investment could be attracted. The states of Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Michoacan, and Guanajuato, in the central and southern parts of the country, have the highest unemployment rates and are the primary sources of migrants to the border and to the U.S.17 Yet, in spite of the growth in trade under NAFTA that has benefited some multinational corporations, significant investment in transportation and infrastructure has not followed.

The three NAFTA countries – the U.S., Mexico, and Canada – should establish an investment fund to improve roads, telecommunications, and post- secondary education in Mexico.18 Mexico lacks the capital to build the infrastructure necessary to help narrow the gap with Canada and the U.S.19 If its northern neighbors contributed 10 percent of what the EU spends on aid and provided wise investments in infrastructure and education, Mexico could experience growth at a rate twice that of Canada and the U.S.

Immigration Psychology

“The psychology of North America would change quickly, and the problems of immigration, corruption, and drugs would look different. North America would have found the magic formula to lift developing countries to the industrial world, and that would be the twenty-first-century equivalent of the shot heard round the world,” writes economist Jeff Faux.20 By building up the central part of the country, border congestion could be relieved, and the whole system could be better managed.21

Further, significant investment in new technologies in small- and medium-sized industries is a must. Some of this can be achieved through tax incentives to spur economic growth in Mexico’s interior. Fruit and vegetable production development can absorb some of the rural workers that have been displaced.

Focusing on the educational system in Mexico is especially key. Mexican students fall near the bottom in cross-country comparisons on basic literacy, math, and science.22 In the U.S., the adult education level is almost thirteen years of school; in Mexico, about seven.23 This low education level has severe implications for competitiveness and standard of living for Mexicans, whether they remain in Mexico or migrate to the U.S.24

Mexican migrants are among the country’s most able workers. They leave for better wages – not necessarily because they were unemployed. Their income in the U.S. is better than what they were making in Mexico, but it’s unclear if the productivity – measured in part by their remittances – is higher than what it would have been if they remained in Mexico.25 By concentrating on investments in Mexico to create more jobs, even if labor movement is opened up, fewer Mexicans would migrate, because incentives for able Mexican workers to remain home would be created.

A Reality-based Policy

The immigration system in the U.S. requires comprehensive reform that serves everyone who lives and works here. Our country’s outdated immigration policy is incapable of dealing with the new century’s immigration patterns or economic realities. In effect, U.S. policy undermines the very ideals and values our country was built on, and serves neither business nor workers.

The number of available employment visas must be increased substantially. Instead of relying on short-term “guest worker” visas, labor short- ages should be filled with workers with full rights, a path to permanent residence, and, if they choose, citizenship. Congress has arbitrarily set the number of employment-based admissions for permanent visas at 140,000 visas annually. This number falls far short of satisfying the actual number for visas needed to meet the U.S. demand for labor and make family reunification possible. Such a liberal expansion would prevent the creation of an underclass of workers, since immigrants would have full employment rights and access to a permanent future in the U.S. community, economy, and democracy.

The number of visas available should be adjusted to reflect actual, demonstrated labor shortages. A new visa program must ensure that U.S. workers are the first ones to be considered for available jobs and that the economic incentives are in place for U.S. employers to hire U.S. workers first. Access to the program should be frozen in areas with high unemployment, and the employer application fees for hiring new foreign workers under the program should be significant.

Under the current visa program, families often have to wait five to twenty years to be reunited with their family members. The visa limits and structural delays must be revamped to end the separation of families that currently contributes to the number of undocumented immigrants entering the country. Family reunification must remain a high priority to be fair to the workers whom we have recruited and to families that are already here.

With an open mind, we can fix U.S. immigration policy. We need to understand that we actually need more immigrant workers of all kinds. We need to understand that NAFTA and similar agreements have placed tremendous new migration pressures upon countries like Mexico. We need to understand that Mexico needs substantial infrastructure and economic assistance if migration pressures are to ease. We need to be open to a new vision of the border and labor migration. We need to remember that family immigration brings benefits to our society economically as well as psychologically.

Immigration policy does not have to be hard- hearted or evil. We can be generous, gain control of the border, and benefit from the immigrant spirit that has lifted the U.S. since its founding. We can end the great immigration panic with calm, thoughtful responses.

Bill Ong Hing is professor of law at the University of California, Davis, and general counsel and founder of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. He is the author of Deporting Our Souls: Values, Morality and Immigration Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Defining America Through Immigration Policy (Temple University Press, 2004) and other books.


  1. 1  “The Great Immigration Panic,” New York Times, June 3, 2008, available at: http://www.nytimes. com/2008/06/03/opinion/03tue1.html

  2. 2  Bill Ong Hing, To Be An American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation (NYU Press,1997).

  3. 3  Jeffrey S. Passel, Pew Hispanic Center, “Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics” (2005), available at http://

  4. 4  Passel.

  5. 5  Passel.

  6. 6  “The Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform:

    Serving Our National Economy,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 109th Congress, 2005, 3-5 (statement of Thomas
    J. Donohue, President and C.E.O, U.S. Chamber of Commerce).

  7. 7  Jason Ackleson, “Achieving ‘Security and Prosperity’: Migration and North American Economic Integration,” Immigration Policy in Focus, Vol. 4, No. 2, Feb. 2006, 1.

  8. 8  Jennifer E. Harman, “Mexican President Vicente Fox’s Proposal for Expanding NAFTA into a European Union-Style Common Market – Obstacles and Outlook, 7-SPGL. & Business Review Am (2001), 216.

  9. 9  Ackleson, 4-5.

  10. 10  Bradly J. Condon & J. Brad McBride, “Do You Know

    the Way to San Jose? Resolving the Problem of Illegal Mexican Migration to the U.S.,” 17 Georgetown Immigration Law Journal (2003), 291.

  11. 11  Christopher J. Cassise, “The European Union v. the U.S. under the NAFTA: A Comparative Analysis of the Free Movement of Persons within the Regions,” 46 Syracuse Law Review (1996), 1349.

  12. 12  Cassise, 1354.

  13. 13  Robert Pastor, Toward a North American Community:

    Lessons from the Old World for the New, (Peterson

    Institute, 2001), 29.

  14. 14  Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s

    Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future – and What It Will

    Take to Win It Back (Wiley, 2006), 224.

  15. 15  Faux, 93.

  16. 16  Faux, 137.

  17. 17  Faux.

  18. 18  Faux, 136.

  19. 19  Pastor, 145.

  20. 20  Pastor, 191.

  21. 21  Pastor, 139.

  22. 22  Condon and McBride, 255.

  23. 23  Condon and McBride.

  24. 24  Condon and McBride, 267.

  25. 25  Condon and McBride, 126.

    On any given day, about 32,000 people are held in immigration detention in this country – about 280,000 a year. That daily number has increased nearly 500 percent since 1994, when the daily average was 6,785 people, according to Detention Watch Network.

    Detained immigrants include families, workers (both documented and undocumented), and asylum-seekers. They are being held pending proceedings to decide whether they have a right to stay in the U.S.
    The average cost of detaining an immigrant is $95 per person per day. Although the Department of Homeland Security owns and operates its own detention centers, it also “buys” bed space from more than 300 county and city prisons nationwide to hold most of those who are detained, according to Detention Watch Network. Immigrants detained in these local jails are mixed in with the local prison population that is serving time for crimes.
    “As a result of this surge in detention and deportation, immigrants are suffering poor conditions and abuse in detention facilities across the country, and families are being separated often for life while the private prison industry and county jailers are reaping huge profits,” says a Detention Watch Network report.
    more than 186,600 immigrants were deported in 2006, a ten percent increase over the year before.

    Source: Detention Watch Network