Do You Know the Way to San Jose? Resolving the Problem of Illegal Mexican Migration to the United States
Posted: 26 Nov 2002
This article examines the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States from social, demographic, economic, legal and business perspectives. Flows of illegal immigrants from Mexico have not diminished, despite stricter immigration laws and increased border enforcement. The evolution of migration patterns, both in terms of the sources and destinations of migrants, has led to greater geographic penetration of migrant networks, which further facilitates illegal migration. Despite economic integration under NAFTA, the wage gap between the United States and Mexico has increased in recent decades. Moreover, employment in the Mexican maquiladoras has begun to decline as Asian countries become relatively more attractive destinations for manufacturing investments due to labor productivity and educational attainment standards. These factors all point to continuing flows of illegal immigrants, despite the increasingly dangerous nature of the journey and despite the dilution of labor rights for illegal immigrants in the United States in a recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite the apparent availability of temporary work visas under U.S. immigration programs and NAFTA, and over two million applications from Mexican citizens, U.S. immigration quotas are under-utilized due to restrictive labor certification requirements. In the short term, the removal of the labor certification requirements for Mexicans under U.S. temporary worker visa programs for unskilled labor would be an important first step to improve the regulation of a large percentage of Mexican migrants. Granting Mexican professionals the same access to NAFTA visas as Canadians now enjoy, together with lifting the 5,500 limit for Mexican professional visas, would give a significant number of Mexicans with high educational attainment levels a legal work route to the United States. However, moving beyond these steps to a widespread legalization of international migration would require a significant reduction in the wage gap between Mexico and the United States.
The experience of the European Union with respect to the Southern European countries suggests that legalized migration programs, combined with economic development and vocational training programs, can help to narrow wage gaps and thereby resolve the problem of illegal migration among member countries. However, the EU experience with Turkey suggests that some narrowing of the wage gap must occur before such programs can work. Given current wage differentials between Mexico and the U.S., a large-scale guest-worker program is probably not the optimal solution to the problem of illegal immigration at present. Rather, the U.S. government should first reform domestic laws that encourage illegal immigration and adopt foreign policies to enhance Mexican economic development and raise educational attainment levels in Mexico. Such policies should reduce demand for illegal workers in the United States and, together with demographic trends, reduce the supply of illegal workers.
Keywords: Mexico, United States, Illegal Immigration, NAFTA
JEL Classification: F2, H7, K4, N3, K31, K33, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation