What Trump Doesn’t Understand About Immigration From Mexico

His xenophobic plan for a border wall is based on an anachronistic understanding of immigration trends. Here’s a better idea.

What a few months ago was just an applause line at campaign rallies is now a reality. President Donald Trump actually intends to build a wall the length of the U.S. border with Mexico. Before we spend billions on this idea, and risk making an already strained relationship with Mexico even worse, shouldn’t we ask whether it is worth it?

The short answer is no.

A wall will not stop people from wanting to come to the United States, it will do little to prevent determined migrants from crossing the border, and it will not lead to a rosier economic future for American citizens.

The supposed benefit of a border wall, one voiced by Mr. Trump during the presidential race, is that a wall would stop illegal immigration, which in turn would boost wages for U. S. citizens.  The numbers do not bear that out. A report published last year by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found, to the contrary, that while new immigrants (legal or illegal) may depress wages for a time in low wage jobs held by other recent arrivals, there are “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term.”

But even if the wall would not impact wages, wouldn’t halting illegal immigration across the border be benefit enough? In truth, no one favors illegal immigration, least of all illegal immigrants, who would probably prefer not to have to take the risks and expense of sneaking across the border and facing a life in the shadows once they arrive here. Nevertheless, let us consider whether a wall would actually work.

Walls have been built for long time to keep the unwanted out, but they haven’t been all that successful in doing so. Hadrian’s Wall, meant to keep barbarians out of Roman-controlled Britain, did nothing to halt the ultimate demise of Roman rule there. The Great Wall of China similarly failed to stop the Mongols or the Manchus from invading and conquering China.

It’s also worth remembering that America already has a wall, and that this current experiment has not been any more successful.Modern day wall-builders have had no better luck. Israel has built a 400-mile security barrier to prevent suicide bombers from sneaking into the country. One side effect of the barrier is that it has made it harder for Palestinians to get into Israel to work. The Israeli government issues work permits to some Palestinians—56,000 at present—but this is not enough to meet the demand.  With unemployment among Palestinians at 28%, a wage rate two to four times higher in Israel, and Israeli employers eager to pay lower wages to Palestinian without permits, a cottage industry has arisen to help Palestinians looking for work in Israel get across the barrier. For $65 to $200 per person, smugglers will help those looking for work in Israel get over or through the barrier, where they will be met by drivers who will take them to an available job site. As a consequence, there are probably 30,000 or more Palestinians working in Israel today without work permits.

It’s also worth remembering that America already has a wall, and that this current experiment has not been any more successful. In 2006, Congress, including then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, voted to authorize the construction of a 700-mile fence along the areas of the 1,900-mile southern border where illegal crossings were most frequent. That fence has actually never been fully completed due to cost overruns and logistical difficulties. The 670 miles of completed fence have cost the U.S. $7 billion—and it hasn’t exactly stopped people from crossing. It has simply shifted crossings to more dangerous desert and mountain areas. Despite the danger and the increased enforcement along the border, people keep coming.

In 2015, the Border Patrol apprehended 337,117 people at all our borders. The vast majority, 331,333, were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Because the Border Patrol likely caught only 54% of U.S.-Mexico border crossers that year, by its own estimate, that means around 287,000 people crossed the border illegally last year.  The 624,000 or so who attempted to cross the border without permission last year is a large number, but not as large as it once was.  In 2000, the Border Patrol apprehended 1.6 million people at the border. That figure has been in near constant decline since then. Mexicans have historically been the largest group of border crossers; if you look at a graph of yearly apprehensions of Mexicans at the border, you would have a hard time telling when the wall was built because there is no evident change in the trend since construction of border fencing began.

Apprehensions of Mexicans at U.S. borders fall to near-historic lows in 2015Mexican emigration rates stable for past five years

Migrants already face enormous difficulties entering the United States, and they are not likely to be deterred by an expanded wall, no matter how beautifully constructed. Migrants coming from southern Mexico or Central America sometimes ride on top of a freight train, and risk not only getting maimed when they hop on or off, but face the prospect of robbery or rape as well. Because the present fence blocks the most convenient routes, migrants are left to try to cross imposing natural barriers, like the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson, Arizona. Many do not make it. The Border Patrol has found 6,000 human remains since 1998. In the Tucson region, the death rate per 10,000 apprehensions has jumped from 4 to 21 since the advent of the wall, according to the Arizona Daily Star. And then there are the drug cartels, which pressure migrants into carrying drugs across the border, when they are not kidnapping them or extorting their families. Finally, there is the U.S. government, which now deploys 20,000 Border Patrol agents along the southern border. A migrant caught by one of these agents can be imprisoned for improper entry—six months for a first violation and up to two years for subsequent violations. Since 2005, 750,000 migrants have been sentenced under these provisions.

And perversely, a wall—or enhanced border enforcement generally—has tended to increase the number of illegal immigrants who stay in the U.S.  Before the mid-1960s, the border with Mexico was relatively porous, with people passing back and forth with relative ease. The U.S. government recognized that some migrants only wanted to come to the U.S. temporarily to work. The Bracero Program that ran from 1942 to 1964 allowed between one and two million Mexicans to work temporarily in the United States. According to Harvard professor Jorge Domínguez, “[t]he problem of Mexican illegal immigration [was] born at the moment that the Bracero program end[ed]. [Mexicans] keep coming, because the demand is still there.” Border enforcement also picked up around the same time.

As a consequence, many of the Mexicans who could have entered legally before then could only do so illegally, and once here they knew it would be harder to go back and forth across the border, so they stayed. By 1969, there were 540,000 illegal immigrants living in the United States, a figure that grew to 11.78 million by 2007, including 6.9 million Mexicans.

So if a wall won’t work, what will? Any proposed answer must address the demand for immigration coming from south of our border. Mexicans keep coming because, although the country has relatively high employment levels, its wages have been persistently low. In 2014, the average Mexican worker made $12,850 annually. Almost half of the population lives below the poverty line. These conditions create a tremendous incentive to look for higher paid work north of the border—incentive enough to pay the around $3,000 or more coyotes charge for a border crossing, a considerable sum in a country where the bottom 20 percent are worth an average of $80.

The present system is indeed inadequate. There are two principal ways to get into this country legally: family connections or possession of special job skills, which typically means a job that requires advanced degrees or proof that you are distinguished in your field. Almost 80% of those who entered the country legally in 2014 did so based on one of these methods. There is a safety valve—a lottery that grants 50,000 visas annually to those people from around the world who would not otherwise qualify for immigration. But for Mexicans, that is not an option because citizens of Mexico, along with residents of other countries with high rates of immigration, are excluded from participating in the lottery.

So long as there is no legal way for Mexicans who lack family ties or the requisite job skills to emigrate, they have no incentive to follow U.S. immigration rules. Consequently, they will continue to come here illegally no matter what we do. If we give them a window of opportunity, we would have a chance of influencing their behavior. One possible approach to slowing illegal immigration would be to use a lottery designed for this purpose. The U.S. did just this with Cuba in the mid-1990s. In 1994, the Coast Guard interdicted 38,560 Cubans who had tried to come here on often rickety boats. Facing a humanitarian crisis, we reached a deal with Cuba to let in 20,000 Cubans annually, who would be chosen by a lottery. The opportunity for safe, legal immigration proved popular with Cubans—541,000 entered the 1998 lottery—and it had an immediate impact on efforts to leave Cuba by boat, as sea rescues dropped to 411 in fiscal year 1996.

If legal alternatives are offered to those Mexicans who cannot now enter legally, there is every reason to believe the number of illegal immigrants could be substantially reduced, particularly because the trend is in that direction.

A similar approach could work with our near neighbors. Take Mexico again. Currently, more Mexicans are admitted legally than any other group: 133,000 of the million legal immigrants in 2014. There is not much demographic difference between this group (89% of whom gained entry through family ties) and those who enter illegally (probably around 160,000 in 2015 based on the 188,000 Mexicans caught at the border that year), and therefore no particular reason why our immigration policy should favor one group over the other. If legal alternatives are offered to those Mexicans who cannot now enter legally, there is every reason to believe the number of illegal immigrants could be substantially reduced, particularly because the trend is in that direction.

Illegal immigration from Mexico, while still high, has declined dramatically in this century. It is one-eighth of what it was in 2000, partly because the birth rate has declined dramatically in the last 50 years from seven to just over two children per mother for reasons having nothing to do with immigration, like greater access to birth control and more women in education and the workforce. The lower birth rate has reduced the percentage of the Mexican population between 15 and 24, the prime years of those who try to cross the border. As a consequence, were the United States to give Mexicans an opportunity to participate in an immigration lottery, the number need not be dauntingly high to be effective at reducing illegal immigration. As it is, the exclusion of Mexicans from participation in the existing lottery means the benefits that could be achieved in reducing illegal immigration by allowing Mexican participation are being lost.

Another possible method of addressing illegal immigration from Mexico is to look at how long such immigrants intend to stay in this county. The number of undocumented Mexicans who stay in the U.S. has declined, dropping from 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.6 million in 2014. Three-fifths of those who left cited a desire to reunite with their families in Mexico, which suggests they had no intention to stay in the U.S. permanently.

The evident desire of so many Mexican border crossers to stay only temporarily has led some recent efforts to develop solutions to illegal immigration to focus on expanding opportunities for temporary work visas. Presently, temporary visas are geared toward seasonal agricultural work. The Center for Global Development published a report last year authored by scholars on both sides of the border, including former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, that could offer one solution. It proposed to expand the temporary visa program beyond agriculture and seasonal work to accommodate the demand for workers, and to protect U.S. workers by requiring that employers pay workers with visas wages equivalent to those paid U.S. citizens.

Some, however, who are currently ineligible, will wish to emigrate permanently. If we could offer 20,000 Cubans legal immigration in order to cut down on illegal entry attempts, we could expand our current green card lottery to allow participation by Mexicans and the Central Americans currently excluded. The exact number that would work to deter illegal border crossings would be hard to determine until we tried it out. The American Constitution Society has a proposal that would suit this purpose: an independent commission to make annual determinations on immigration levels to reflect changes in the labor market and immigration trends.

Undoubtedly, more ideas will be broached as the debate over immigration policy comes to the fore. Whatever is ultimately decided, a workable solution will require an approach that recognizes and addresses the demand for immigration coming from our next-door neighbors to the south and is more flexible than a wall.

James P. Rooney

James P. Rooney is an attorney in Boston and the president of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.