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7 Chapter 2 Principles of Operation: Theories of International Migration M ost citizens and public officials think they understand the mechanics of international migration, of course, or they would not advocate such bold proposals or act with such assured abandon. In the North American case particularly, the reasons for Mexican immigration seem obvious. The prevailing wisdom begins with the commonsense observation that the United States is a rich country and Mexico, by comparison, is not. Although Mexico’s 1997 GNP per capita of $3,700 places it in the upper tier of developing nations, it pales in comparison to the U.S. figure of $29,000, and nowhere else on earth is there such a sharp contrast along a land border, much less one that is two thousand miles long. As a result of this stark income differential, the standard of living is much higher north than south of the border. In per capita terms, Mexican private consumption is only 10 percent of that enjoyed in the United States. Obviously, simply by heading northward, crossing the border, and finding a job in the United States, the average Mexican can raise, often quite dramatically, his or her standard of living. Even at the current U.S. minimum wage, a migrant working full-time for a year would earn roughly three times the Mexican average income. Under these circumstances, what rational, self-interested Mexican would not want to emigrate to the United States? Simply by crossing a line, he or she would not only earn more income but gain access to better schooling, a richer infrastructure, improved social services, superior medical care, and a fuller array of consumer alternatives. As far as most people are concerned, Mexican immigrants choose to come to the United States, making just such cost-benefit calculations. They believe that Mexicans rationally understand that the costs of 8 Beyond Smoke and Mirrors migrating to the United States are more than offset by a variety of benefits. Even discounting for the costs of moving, crossing the border , looking for work, and adapting to a foreign culture, the material well-being of most Mexicans is substantially improved by relocating to the United States and pursuing work there, and each year hundreds of thousands of Mexicans seem to make precisely this decision. As long as the wage differential between Mexico and the United States is great, most people believe, workers south of the border have a strong incentive to move northward. Although migration between Mexico and the United States goes back to the nineteenth century and has ebbed and flowed for more than a century, U.S. citizens and politicians have never been entirely comfortable with immigrants in general or Mexicans in particular (see Higham 1955; Espenshade and Calhoun 1993; Espenshade and Hempstead 1996). Public sentiment against immigrants has generally oscillated in tandem with expansionary and recessionary times and in conjunction with broader ideological currents (Meyers 1995). U.S. immigration policies have consequently swung back and forth between recruitment and restriction, acceptance and exclusion (Timmer and Williamson 1998). For a variety of reasons, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of restrictive sentiment. The most obvious way to accomplish the assumed goal of reducing Mexican immigration, based on the understanding outlined earlier, was to lower the incentives by raising the costs and reducing the benefits of entry from Mexico. Unfortunately, the principal benefit—higher income—is not easily manipulable through policy mechanisms. No politician could ever vote to lower U.S. income as a means of reducing the incentives for immigration, and while U.S. political leaders might support efforts to raise incomes in Mexico, its economy is not under their direct control. Given these constraints, U.S. policymakers focused on other, more malleable, costs and benefits. On the benefit side, the United States sought to reduce access to employment by criminalizing the hiring of undocumented workers and barring immigrants, undocumented and sometimes even documented, from receiving public services. On the cost side, the government hired more Border Patrol officers, increased their resources, and granted them new powers to detain, prosecute, and deport unauthorized aliens. By increasing the costs and lowering the benefits of undocumented migration, authorities hoped to deter Mexicans from entering and staying in the United States. That something is seriously wrong with these policies and their underlying premises is suggested by the fact that they have not worked very well. As we document later, American attempts to raise Principles of Operation 9 the costs and lower...


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