Before Donald Trump, government and business handled illegal immigration with a wink and a nod. But his wall won't stop the powerful forces behind the movement of people.
Economics are more powerful than any border wall.
For decades, illegal immigration has been a product of our insatiable appetite for cheap, fearful labor. These workers harvest agricultural products, build subdivisions, work in slaughterhouses and poultry operations, among other sectors. Companies recruit workers who are in the country without permission.
Such workers also pay FICA taxes for Social Security they will never draw, while also paying sales, federal income and other taxes.
One complaint over the population in the country illegally is whether they “pay their way.” The evidence is mixed. A 2016 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that first-generation immigrants cost government more than the native-born, especially in education. But the next generation is “among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population.”
Another question is whether immigrants here without permission lower wages for native-born workers. Eminent economists debate this, with no clear answer. Common sense would say the least skilled and educated native workers would be affected — but few American citizens want to, say, pick apples.
The Pew Research Center reports that the number of such immigrants living in the United States fell to its lowest level in a decade, according to 2016 numbers. That puts the total number that year at about 10.7 million (out of more than 323 million Americans), with fewer coming from Mexico.
To be sure, the wave of illegal immigration over the past quarter century has brought radical change in some economic sectors and parts of the country. Contrast that 10.7 million in 2016 — about where it stood in the 2000s — with only 3.5 million living illegally in the United States in 1990. About 2.7 million such immigrants took the amnesty signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Among the most destabilized places have been Mexican-American barrios, where the newcomers crowded in. This caused no small amount of resentment among some longtime Latino citizens, but they didn’t voice it for fear of giving comfort to bigots.
And speaking of destabilization, many migrants willing to trek through searing deserts to work in America were doing so because they were victims of NAFTA. Heavily subsidized American corn and other products put many small Mexican farmers out of business. Although the conditions of immigrants here illegally are less than ideal, they send home vast sums earned in El Norte.
All of which is to say that illegal immigration is complicated by many things: the dynamics of business and economics, the desire of Americans for inexpensive houses, lawn services, housekeepers and food; the hunger of immigrants for a better material life.
The immigration pipeline could have been severely slowed by imposing severe criminal penalties for companies employing workers here without permission, especially federal prison time for the chief executives. Establishing a humane, regulated guest-worker program for agriculture would be another useful step. But for many reasons, mostly political resistance, these responses were never implemented.
As for another border big business — illegal drugs — most are smuggled through legal ports of entry or through tunnels. A wall would be of little utility. And once again, the traffickers are responding to demand in America.
Donald Trump isn’t entirely wrong, but he doesn’t realize how he’s onto something. With unaddressed climate change, our southern border will face a migration that makes even the record levels of the 2000s look small. Drought, tropical diseases, rising sea levels and political crises will put millions on the paths north.
I suspect this will require both a wall and posting troops at the border. Alternatively, we could work on lowering greenhouse gases and invest in immigrant-sending countries to make them stronger — both of which Trump refuses to do.
So the wall fight will go on. It is a proxy for Anglo fears of becoming a minority. It is a valuable distraction for the president from his many legal troubles.
But underneath it is the economic hypocrisy of our immigration policy.