Some Views on Undocumented Immigration from Mexico to the U.S.

28 Dec


Here in Mexico, where I currently live, the issue of immigration is basic, far reaching and often very personal. In the United States, it is controversial, often irrational, and emotional as well. Even economists can’t seem to agree on the costs and contributions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., an estimated 60 per cent of whom are Mexican. It is only $8 billion, (to an almost $14 trillion dollar GDP) according to George Borjas, discounting the downward pressure he says they put on wages.

Others say, multiply their wages times employment and that’s the net contribution of Mexicans to the U.S. economy; in other words, the economy is that much bigger than it would have been. A recent North Carolina study showed a $61 million expenditure on public services used by migrants, compared to an $11 billion contribution to that state’s economic growth.

What’s more, the Manhattan Institute’s Tamar Jacoby points out other qualities of undocumented immigration, like its ‘just-in-time’ aspect. Immigrants in Detroit, for example, will contact compatriots at home to say whether there are jobs going, or not, or what they’ve heard about the job market in other cities, such as Atlanta or Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Lant Pritchett, a developmental economist at Harvard and author of the book “Let Their People Come,” has a different and – in the current climate, unusual — take on immigration. He looks at the amount the U.S. spends on foreign aid and compares that to the economic effects of the remittance money migrants send home to their poor countries. Right now, for example, the industrial world transfers upwards of $70 million a year in overseas development assistance, that often does little to reduce poverty. But Pritchett calculates a far higher $300 billion transfer would these countries simply relax restrictions and allow just a 3 per cent rise in the labour force.

It is an interesting economic argument, although Pritchett sees it as a matter of social justice. The U.S., he says, is “avoiding addressing our own social issues and balancing them on the back of poor Central Americans. Labour will come to address these needs, and by not acknowledging and explicitly creating avenues for this to happen, officially and legally, more will happen illegally.”

Pritchett also believes this should be done through temporary worker programs that recycle, in a sense, the rich-country jobs through ever larger numbers of poor-country workers. “There’s often the sentiment that the temporariness is bad,” he says, “but it’s much better than illegal temporariness.”

Here others, such as Jacoby, disagree. “The traditional flow of migrant farmworkers — truly seasonal labourers, usually single men — is giving way to a more diverse stream: both men and women, often with families, less rooted at home and more open to the lure of life in America,” he writes.

I believe that it would be a good idea to at least move the debate onto these shores, rather than blaming illegal immigrants for being the apparent solution to the country’s labour needs. What’s more, the fact that thousands of Mexicans are returning home because of the current economic crisis would tend to support the theories of Jacoby, Pritchett and various others regarding the real value of migrant workers: their flexibility.

For an altogether different and more personal dimension to this issue, readers can take a look at my latest article in the Toronto Star. 



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