Magazine | March 28, 2016, Issue

Beyond the Wall

On immigration from Mexico, Trump is not entirely wrong

Mexico has been at the heart of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign from the very start. When Trump first announced that he would be seeking the Republican presidential nomination, in June of last year, he warned that the Mexican government was “laughing at us, at our stupidity.” Though Mexico’s GDP per capita is roughly one third of that of the United States when adjusted for purchasing power, Trump insisted that Mexico was “beating us economically.” One of his more provocative claims was that Mexico was, in effect, using the U.S. as a “dumping ground,” sending not its best and brightest across the border, but rather its drug dealers and its rapists.

Trump’s anti-Mexican remarks have not exactly been warmly embraced across the political spectrum. Liberals maintain that Trump’s Mexico-bashing is designed to appeal to a dangerous ethnic chauvinism that has hitherto lain dormant. Many conservatives who favor more-vigorous border enforcement have also objected to Trump’s language, on the grounds that it is needlessly inflammatory. Mitt Romney was just as committed to combating illegal immigration as Trump, and he paid a political price for it. Yet no serious person could accuse Romney of bigotry, since his objections to illegal immigration were so clearly rooted in respect for the rule of law. The same cannot be said of Trump.

In the months since his announcement, Trump has been notably inconsistent in his stance on immigration, with some anti-immigration advocates, including Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, suggesting that he favors a so-called “touchback” amnesty, in which the vast majority of illegal immigrants would be granted legal status, provided that they first make a brief return to their native countries. But Trump has never wavered in calling for a border wall designed to deter future illegal immigration, a wall that he would somehow compel the Mexican government to finance. Of all the powerful applause lines in a presidential campaign that’s been full of them, this is the one he has returned to time and again.

Regardless of what one thinks of Trump’s qualifications to be president — my own view is that he isn’t qualified to serve as America’s dogcatcher — there is no question that his fixation on Mexico has touched a nerve. The reason is that Trump has the germ of a point. Mexico may not be “beating us economically,” but it really is true that the U.S. has served as a kind of economic escape valve for Mexico, in ways that have ill served not just the U.S. but also, in the long run, Mexico itself. Trump’s Mexico-bashing notwithstanding, there is potentially a great deal of common ground between Americans on the political right who want to put an end to illegal immigration and Mexicans on the political left who want to make their country more egalitarian and inclusive.

From 2009 to 2014, the net flow of migration from Mexico to the U.S. was negative, according to the Pew Research Center. While 870,000 Mexican nationals settled in the U.S., 1 million of them returned to Mexico, a figure that includes those who returned voluntarily as well as 140,000 who were deported. Had there been no deportations, the net flow would have been slightly positive, and of course the threat of removal may have led at least some Mexican nationals to “self-deport.” By way of comparison, between 1995 and 2000, when labor-market conditions for less-skilled workers in the U.S. were far stronger and the Mexican economy was in worse shape, 2.94 million Mexican nationals settled in the U.S., while only 670,000 returned home.

Some observers claim that because net migration from Mexico is now negative, there is no longer any need for concern. This is nonsense. There are still roughly 5.6 million Mexican immigrants illegally in the U.S., and to meaningfully reduce the size of this population, we’d need far more Mexicans to return to their native country, and far fewer to enter the U.S., every year. Had the Obama administration been more aggressive about immigration enforcement, the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. would almost certainly be considerably smaller.

One straightforward step the federal government could take would be to aid state-level efforts to curb illegal immigration. In February, Bob Davis of the Wall Street Journal reported that the passage of a series of immigration-enforcement measures in Arizona had contributed to a steep 40 percent decline in that state’s unauthorized-immigrant population between 2007 and 2012. There were other factors, to be sure, most importantly the housing bust and the subsequent recession. But the outflow of illegal immigrants from Arizona proved far greater than that from other states that were similarly hard hit — in part, it seems, because Arizona endeavored to make it more difficult for employers to hire illegal immigrants. Other states, however, have moved in the opposite direction by extending more legal protections to illegal immigrants, and the Obama administration has badly undermined state-level immigration-enforcement efforts by issuing executive orders that shield roughly half of the illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. from deportation.

If more-vigorous immigration enforcement can do so much to curb illegal immigration, why should Americans, least of all American conservatives, care about economic conditions in Mexico? The reason is that Mexico’s poverty is the ultimate source of the migration challenge. Economic development is the only reliable way to reduce migrant outflows. Once a country’s income per capita passes $8,000 or so, its residents become far less inclined to leave the country as their incomes rise. Before this threshold is reached, rising income can actually spur more migration, presumably because it gives truly impoverished people the means to pack up and leave.

If poor Mexicans had better prospects for advancement at home, far fewer of them would choose to settle in the United States. Indeed, the most important reason migration from Mexico to the United States has slowed in recent years is not more-aggressive border enforcement. Rather, it is the fact that Mexico’s GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing-power parity) has reached $18,500, which places it in roughly the same ballpark as moderately well-off countries such as Russia, Malaysia, and Turkey. This is still substantially lower than U.S. per capita income ($56,300), though, and the gap remains big enough to tempt Mexican workers northwards. Yet as Mexico’s standard of living has improved, its people are less eager to leave their families and neighborhoods behind. The problem we face is that while Mexicans are better-off on average, Mexico remains a highly unequal society. Until life improves for the poorest Mexicans, migration will remain at attractive option.

When conservatives rail against illegal immigration from Mexico, they should also rail against the Mexican government for failing to provide for its own people. Illegal immigrants are at fault for violating U.S. immigration laws, but so are their home governments that have failed to create safe and prosperous environments in which they can raise their children. To lose sight of that is a mistake. The good news is that Mexico has made strides in reducing extreme poverty, thanks in part to the increased social spending that accompanied Mexico’s political democratization. Two major anti-poverty programs in particular, Progresa and Oportunidades, have greatly increased household incomes among Mexico’s poorest families. But social spending is not enough. Further reductions in poverty will depend on job creation for Mexicans with modest skills. One of the ironies of Donald Trump’s embrace of protectionism is that if our goal is to reduce migration from Mexico, we ought to welcome the offshoring of industries that depend heavily on less-skilled immigrant labor. Why fight to keep low-wage jobs in meatpacking, general assembly, and furniture manufacturing in the U.S. if these jobs tend to be held by less-skilled immigrants, who need subsidies from U.S. taxpayers to lead decent lives?

In a similar vein, the U.S. ought to consider encouraging U.S. retirees to settle in Mexico. As the U.S. population ages, demand for home health aides and other low-wage service workers who can provide for the elderly is increasing, and this rising demand is often cited by advocates of higher immigration levels. But instead of admitting more less-skilled immigrants, the U.S. could allow U.S. retirees to make use of Medicare in Mexico, a simple measure that would address a number of problems at once: It would generate employment opportunities for less-skilled workers in Mexico; it would reduce the demand for less-skilled immigrant workers in the U.S.; and it might even reduce Medicare expenditures, since the cost of offering benefits would be substantially lower in Mexico than in the U.S. If this seems unrealistic, consider that U.S. retirees have already settled in regions such as Jalisco, Guanajuato, Baja Sur, and the Mexican Caribbean in large numbers. More older Americans would join them in seeking a lower cost of living in Mexico if their Medicare benefits traveled with them.

Whether we like it or not, the fates of the U.S. and Mexico are intertwined, and securing Mexico’s cooperation in curbing illegal immigration will likely require giving the Mexican government something it wants. Keep in mind that Mexico is not just a source of migrants to the U.S. — it also separates us from Guatemala ($7,900), Honduras ($5,000), and El Salvador ($8,300), all of which are much poorer than Mexico, and where migration pressures are still building. These countries are the biggest new sources of illegal immigration, and to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Central America, we must convince the Mexican government to stop turning a blind eye when Central Americans pass through its territory en route to the U.S.

The Mexican government, for all its weaknesses, is fully capable of halting Central American migrants. In 2001, for example, President Vicente Fox deployed the armed forces to prevent migrants from passing through the Sonoran Desert, out of fear that they might die of thirst in a severe heat wave. Instead of focusing solely on securing America’s southern border, we would do well to secure Mexico’s cooperation in halting migrants long before they reach it.

Winning over the Mexican government by helping it create employment opportunities at home might be less emotionally satisfying than trying to bully Mexico into doing our bidding, as Donald Trump would prefer. But while a bullying approach would almost certainly drive the Mexicans into taking a more adversarial stance, appealing to Mexico’s self-interest would have a far greater chance of success. If we really hope to put a stop to illegal immigration, we’d be foolish not to do so.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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