Friday, October 15, 2010

What’s the problem with the U.S.-Mexican border? Define your terms

Mathew Yglesias discussed the term “illegal immigrant”:
… it’s generally a bit misleading to write about US-Mexico border crossings primarily through a frame of immigration. If you look at this wall on the border near Tijuana, it hardly captures the full scope of the issue to say that this is a barrier to prevent Mexicans from immigrating to the United States and permanently settling there. It’s also a barrier to prevent Americans from walking on the beach into Mexico and buying some tacos. Or to prevent Mexicans from waking walking across the border to sell some beach towels and umbrellas to Americans and then walking back home with pockets full of money. The increasing militarization of the US-Mexico border has tended to increase the duration of time that Mexicans who come to the US to work illegally spend in our country, but both traditionally and under a saner policy most people who cross the border would probably just go back.

People should remember that not only are wage levels higher in the United States, the price level is higher too. Consequently, the best way for Mexicans willing to migrate to maximize their real wealth is to come to the US to work and then take their money back to Mexico. Temporary labor migration of this kind has traditionally been the goal of most work-oriented border crossing and the easiest way to prevent it from turning into illegal labor and semi-permanent settlement is to create a legal channel.

None of this per se answers the terminological issue, but it’s just to gesture in the direction of the idea that we should try to get more specific about what it is we’re talking about. There are laws governing crossing the border, laws governing employment, laws governing citizenship, etc. When I was camping and paddling down the St Croix River, I crossed the US-Canada border without authorization a number of times and probably broke some kind of laws but I was never an “illegal immigrant to Canada,” I was a kid on a canoe trip.
The politics pertaining to the U.S.-Mexican border is based more and more on hysteria and the resources thrown at trying to block movement back and forth between the two nations seems way out of proportion to any real problem free movement creates. Countries have every right to control their borders but when common people are prohibited from legally crossing a line on the map to work then they will start crossing borders at any point they can, they will be forced to live outside the law, and they won’t leave because of the difficulty of returning at a future date. Sometimes government policies play a role in aggravating the very problems they were created to resolve. There really is such a thing as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yglesias is right – terminology and definitions are important. (I remember a college professor who continually reminded us during class debates to “define your terms.”) So is the problem that people cross the southern U.S. border looking for work without going through the formal process of applying for citizenship or some sort of work permit?

Maybe rather than trying to recreate the border between North and South Korea with walls, barbed-wire, and armed personnel we should establish centers on the border where those seeking employment in the U.S. can go to apply for and receive the necessary work permits in an expedited manner. If the problem is defined as Mexicans entering the country illegally and never leaving then it makes more sense to make it easy to enter legally and to leave easily without fear of not being able to return.

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