The Complexities of Stopping Illegal Immigration

“If you build it, he will come.” That’s the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams so many of us are familiar with. But what happens when that fiction turns into, even if we build it, they will keep coming?

That is the current reality in the debate over illegal immigration. Despite all the measures to U.S. government—at least at the federal level—has taken over the years to try to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across our southwest border, they continue to arrive from Mexico, Central and South America, and many points beyond. Hundreds will die each year trying to get here; sometimes in the desert and sometimes by drowning in the Rio Grande. Some of those who make it across will spend a long time in a detention center—essentially a jail—and those who do not get caught live in constant fear of being discovered.

But why do so many try to come to the U.S. year after year, knowing it could mean prison, long separations from family, or even death? In order to try to find a solution, we have to understand what motivates illegal immigration, and decide whether or not those motivations can be eliminated or can only simply be managed.

Illegal immigration generally operates under the carrot-and-stick theory, albeit in two different ways. The first way is the carrot existing in the U.S. and the stick existing the immigrants’ home countries. Generally speaking, the economies of places like El Salvador and Honduras are much weaker than that of the U.S. Even in Mexico, which has the 13th largest economy in the world, job opportunities are much more sparse. Sadly, for all our human interdiction efforts, the flow of illegal immigrants north is often dictated more by the job availability balance between the U.S. and these countries and not by the possibility of getting caught crossing the border. And even the most menial jobs in asparagus fields and gas station bathrooms here pay multiple times what much “better” jobs offer south of the border.

Other carrots that exist in the U.S. besides jobs include benefits offered by some states to illegal immigrants, like drivers’ licenses, the ability to attend public schools, and in-state college tuition rates. Then there are sanctuary cities that prohibit law enforcement officers from asking residents about their immigration status. Texas currently has thirteen such cities, including Houston, Dallas, Austin, and Laredo.

But then come the sticks—both the ones here in the U.S. and the ones at the illegal immigrants’ points of origin. The punishments for the attempted voyage come in a natural and manmade variety. The route from Central America to the U.S. border is unforgiving, fraught with violent drug cartels and gangs who prey on vulnerable illegal migrants, rapists who assault eight out of every ten female migrants, hunger, heat and cold…and the desert. Since January 2001, over 2,100 illegal immigrants have died just within the confines of Pima County in southern Arizona. Many parts of Mexico are awash in cartel-drawn blood, and gangs in El Salvador are forcibly recruiting children as young as nine years old to join their ranks. Illegal immigrants from places like these fear their homelands much more than they fear any punishment our government or mother nature can mete out.

So what are some viable options for slowing the flow? We can start by taking away at least some of the carrots, but as an article by the National Review Online points out, too many people benefit from illegal immigration and would be hesitant to eliminate these carrots: “In an economy of long-standing 7-plus percent unemployment, employers could surely find American workers, but not, by and large, workers as industrious as Mexican nationals, and not as low-paid, since the assorted costs of the Mexican workers’ achieving nominal parity with American citizens are borne by the society at large. Do not expect business to favor any reform that changes the advantageous status quo.”

Also, do not expect states to start disallowing children—regardless of their immigration status—from getting an education at public schools. Despite the argument that they benefit from the property taxes we pay, the American way has never been to deny any child the opportunity to learn to read and to better themselves, especially when they probably would never have that chance elsewhere. And the better educated the child, the less of a chance that child will become a criminal later on. As for the drivers’ license issue, that is beyond the control of the federal government since it’s a state issue. The states that provide them say it’s a public safety measure, and they’d rather have illegal immigrants who are driving be able to obtain insurance and learn the rules of the road.

So what about making the sticks we can impose harsher? Some people argue for finishing the border fence as a way of effectually closing the border. First, there’s no way in a million years we, as a country, can afford to finish 1,300-plus miles of double-reinforced border fence. If one knew how much money and time it cost to put up and maintain the 673 miles fence we do have—which has varying degrees of effectiveness—it would make heads spin. As nice as it sounds to some people to shut down the border, these same people would be screaming at the supermarket and their favorite clothing stores when prices on things like tomatoes and shoes shoot up tenfold; roughly $4 billion in trade crosses our southwest border every single day. Some may hate that fact, but that does not make it any less true.

Then there are the more extreme suggestions provided by a few people, like posting Marines every few miles along the border in towers with orders to shoot any illegal immigrants on sight, or even placing land mines along the border. Aside from the obvious humanitarian arguments against these “solutions,” I feel the need to remind readers that even the Berlin Wall wasn’t impossible to breach. We could imprison illegal crossers instead of just deporting them and waiting for them to return, but our prisons are already overcrowded with U.S. citizen criminals. Where would we put the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants caught every year? And with what tax dollars would we pay to feed and house them? First-time crossers are actually only charged with a misdemeanor, which is equivalent to jailing someone for speeding. Repeat crossers do get charged with a felony, and under Operation Streamline do serve some time and get deported with little fuss.

But despite these harsher punishments, most keep coming back. According to a report by NBC/Univision’s Fusion, “in more than 21,000 cases in 2012, agents apprehended border crossers who already had been caught six or more times. According to the data, more than 100,000 cases involved two or more previous apprehensions. Five crossers had at least 60 apprehensions on their records when nabbed in 2012.”

Now enter the debate on comprehensive immigration reform. One side of the political aisle says the border must be secured before reform can be considered, and the other side says reform needs to happen now regardless of the status of the border. But what happens when all practical border security measures probably won’t stop illegal immigrants from coming to the U.S.? If the border is impossible to secure, then immigration reform can never happen under the first argument. But under the second argument, we cannot allow violent drug smugglers and human traffickers to keep crossing unchecked either.

The point of all this is not to provide a solution to the problem of illegal immigration, but simply to point out that it will continue to happen due to geopolitical factors over which the U.S. government has no control. We cannot improve the economies of Central America to the level of ours. We cannot create jobs there or provide a solid education for their children. We cannot reduce violent crime or government corruption to manageable levels, and worse yet, their governments cannot either. Our government has not even been able to solve such problems in U.S. cities like Detroit and Chicago, much less in foreign lands. This is why we will always hold the carrot, and why their stick will always be meaner than ours. 

Follow Sylvia Longmire on Twitter: @DrugWarAnalyst


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