A Better Border Solution

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Enforcement and deportations won’t stop illegal migration.

New IMM pollThe horrifying sight of children from Central America sitting in camps at the U.S. border has turned the immigration debate from mad to madder, so some basic facts about migrants and the border may be irrelevant. But allow us to try.

The first fact to keep in mind is that America’s southern border is already far more under control than it was for most of the last 20 years. Apprehensions by the Border Patrol in the Southwest are a fair proxy for illegal crossings over the Mexican border. And as the nearby chart shows, apprehensions have plunged since the record 1.64 million in 2000.

Border enforcement has increased markedly, perhaps deterring some potential migrants. But the bigger factor behind the declines is almost surely the slower-growing U.S. economy. Illegal immigration boomed in the fast-growing 1990s, fell with the slower growth at the start of the last decade, but then picked up again with the mid-decade expansion. Then it plunged sharply amid the Great Recession and miserable recovery to a low of 327,577 in 2011.

These numbers come from a new study by the National Foundation for American Policy, which follows immigration trends. As analyst Stuart Anderson notes, the news is that illegal crossings are picking up again as the recovery gains steam and the American jobless rate falls. This ebb and flow shows that immigrants continue to come to the U.S. mainly to work and support their families, and they don’t come when there is less work.

Another reality is that current influx is increasingly not from Mexico but from Central America. As Mr. Anderson notes, the share of non-Mexican apprehensions by the Border Patrol has increased to a projected 50% this fiscal year from 27% only two years ago. In one sense this is good news because it means that economic progress and fewer births have reduced immigration from Mexico.

This is precisely what some of us argued during the Nafta debate in 1993. The calls now to repeal Nafta to punish Mexico for allowing Central American migration are economic lunacy. The goal of U.S. economic policy and diplomacy should be to encourage the same political stability and growth in Central America that has taken place in Mexico.

This economic motive also explains some of the influx of child migrants. Parents who have come to the U.S. illegally are less likely to return home knowing they’ll have a harder time returning to the U.S. if they do. So they stay and work here and send for the children to follow, often escaping gangs and violence at home.

If the U.S. had more work visas for low-skilled immigrants, those parents could move back and forth more easily. As President Obama rightly said on Wednesday in Texas, this is another argument for immigration reform.

As for the recent surge of children now stuck in camps, the best analogy may be the Mariel Cuban boatlift of 1980. Fidel Castro unleashed a flood of migrants on the false promise of asylum in the U.S., and this year thousands of Central Americans have also rushed to the border based on misinformation. The Obama Administration should have done more to head off the influx, but now that the children are here they need to be taken care of before their cases are adjudicated and they can be returned home.

Mr. Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in new spending to assist in that task, and our advice would be to provide the money if he promises to work with Central American governments to safely return the children. A clear statement from the President that there is no automatic sanctuary in the U.S. would go far to correcting the misinformation and reduce future child migration. This is how Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, stopped a previous influx from Central America during the Bush Administration.

The larger tragedy of this episode is that it has done enormous and needless damage to the cause of immigration reform. The Obama Administration’s incompetence has again undermined its own agenda. But once the misery of the children is past, no one should think that illegal immigration can be stopped by more enforcement alone, by more Border Patrol agents or more harassment of American business. The way to reduce illegal immigration is by providing more work visas to enter—and leave—the U.S. legally.

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