The Immigration Dilemma

Conservatives should support more open borders, not fences.


President George W. Bush’s troubled eight-year tenure in the White House had its bright moments. His efforts to provide AIDS relief in Africa, his education policy and immigration reform. Bush understood, as does Gov. Rick Perry, that immigration – both legal and illegal – is not a simple issue. They realize that such glib expressions as “the need to secure the border” have nuances. They also realize that there is more to immigration than what happens along the Texas-Mexico border.

Our technology companies need skilled workers, and they need them from wherever they can get them. From India. From China. From Europe. It is why Intel Corporation has spent considerable sums lobbying for immigration reform. PhD engineers from Delhi who apply for an H1-B visa and low-skill, low-wage, illegal aliens sneaking across the border are part of the same, larger problem: the lack of a comprehensive immigration policy.

We should be thankful to Arizona and its new immigration law for waking up the Obama administration to a too-long deferred priority. Immigration is a national policy issue. From libertarian to liberal, we can all agree on that. Arizona can say it is merely enforcing existing federal law, but true or not, it serves to force this question: what is the federal law? It is not only a question worth answering, it is one we must answer. And it is one on which Texas can play a leadership role.

The Realities of the Border

Texas is different from Arizona and unique among border states. For starters, Arizona has no border cities: metropolises that have both U.S. and Mexican sides. Texas border cities are rapidly growing, highly diverse and economically significant. Our border with Mexico – about 1,200 miles –  is the longest international border of any state. And our border population is exponentially larger than that of any other state. We know, intuitively, that this border cannot be “secured.” What’s more, we don’t want it secured. Neither socially nor economically. Half of Texas’ exports go to Mexico. Easy access between Mexico and Texas is vital to our national and state interest, not inimical to it.

If we believe that a border that allows for the easy movement of goods and services is good for Texas, is it also good for Arizona? For New Mexico and California? For our Canadian border? Yes it is. And for the same reasons. The free flow of goods, of capital, and of talent is vital to free enterprise. It is what makes economies successful. Mexico and Canada are among our largest and most significant trading partners. We need them to buy our goods, just as we need theirs. We need their ideas and their workers – both skilled and unskilled.

You can hold these views and still be dismayed at illegal immigration, and we should be. The question is not whether illegal immigration is good or bad (it’s bad), but whether we have a rational immigration policy (we do not). The problem with the U.S. – Mexico border is not whether it can be secured (it cannot), but whether we should regard illegal immigration as the root of the border crisis (it’s not). The crisis is precipitated not by Mexican workers seeking jobs in Arizona and Texas, but by the horrors of the drug war. Too often we confuse the two.

If we could secure the border against Mexican workers, it would still have no effect on the drug cartels. They are too powerful and too sinister to be stopped by fences or by National Guard patrols. Why? Because their influence stretches deep into the U.S. One need only think about the failures of Prohibition to understand that this is a war we will lose. There is a solution here as well, but this is a topic for another time.

So how can Texas lead the way in immigration reform, reform we need to ensure our prosperity? What follows are precepts, without which sensible laws will not be enacted. They are the starting points of a debate that we must have.

We must rethink our relationship with Mexico. Our governor knows that, and he can become the advocate for a change long overdue. We must acknowledge that the drug trade is an issue that is as much our problem as it is Mexico’s. We must examine the economic relationship against the social dynamics of the Texas-Mexico border – and be willing to apply that relationship nationally. The Texas Border and Mexican Affairs division of the Texas Secretary of State’s office is already responsible for dealing with the Mexican government. In 2004, Perry, along with three Mexican state governors, signed the Agreement for Regional Progress “to create new jobs and expand economic opportunities along the border.”

We must acknowledge that the U.S.-Mexico border cannot be secured.  The reality is that we simply cannot secure thousands of miles of border – even if it was in our interest to do so, and it is not. In economic terms, the more vigorously enforced the border is, the higher the price of drugs becomes and the greater the violence. And according to the Congressional Research Service, the cost of trying to secure an unsecurable border is costing us a fortune: “Appropriations for the Border Patrol have grown steadily from $1.06 billion in  FY2000 to $3.58 billion requested in FY2011—an increase of 238%.” Also, “The cost of building and maintaining a double set of steel fences along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border could be five to 25 times greater than congressional leaders forecast last year, or as much as $49 billion over the expected 25-year life span of the fence.”

We must clarify the status of what makes an immigrant legal or illegal. If I come to the U.S. to earn an income, with no intention of making the U.S. my permanent home, am I an immigrant? No, I am a temporary worker. My status is less that of someone seeking citizenship than that of a foreign student at the University of Texas. It is obvious that as long as we have U.S. companies who are seeking workers, and the Mexican economy remains in shambles, we will have Mexicans who will risk their lives to take those jobs.  Right now, excellent temporary training opportunities are available, but are unpaid. Other guest worker programs are extremely confusing, difficult to complete and discourage both workers and employers from using them, and therefore encouraging simpler, illegal alternatives. We can address this situation by providing work visas with more alternatives for temporary employment. This was a top recommendation by the Bi-national Task Force on the United States-Mexico Border in November.

None of these ideas is new. A frank discussion among interested parties is obvious and necessary. That it has not yet taken place is discouraging. But the situation is not hopeless. Once we quit spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a fence and once we have clarity and honesty in our discussions, a solution will be found.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.