Review & Outlook
November 12, 2003
Viva Work Visas
One reason we support an open immigration policy is because the best laid plans of the border restrictionists never achieve what they claim they will.
The employer sanctions bill of 1986 didn't stop illegal immigration but merely added a burden to businesses and created a black market in false identification documents. The crackdown on the U.S.-Mexico border of the mid-1990s has slowed the immigrant flow in some places, but in the process has encouraged illegals to stay in the U.S. far longer than they otherwise would. Why risk returning to Chihuahua if you'll have a harder time ever getting back to Chicago? The restrictionists resemble campaign-finance reformers in their willingness to ignore both human nature and economic reality.
So it is a pleasure to report on a new study that shows how market forces might actually help reduce illegal immigration. Soon to be released by the National Foundation for American Policy, the study by Stuart Anderson demonstrates how the "bracero" work visa program of the 1950s and 1960s made for a far more rational migration policy than the restrictionist maze we have today.
From 1942 to 1964, the bracero program allowed Mexican farm workers to enter the U.S. as seasonal laborers. At its peak from 1954 to 1960, it admitted more than 300,000 workers each year. The program allowed U.S. growers to meet the demand for temporary farm labor, and it allowed Mexicans to freely enter the U.S. without fear of arrest -- and to work for wages far higher than they could make back home. It was a bow to the economic law of supply and demand, which contrary to the arguments of some conservatives doesn't stop at the Rio Grande.
Mr. Anderson shows that during its heyday the bracero program also dramatically reduced illegal immigration. Illegal entries are hard to measure precisely, but one proxy is the number of apprehensions made by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Mr. Anderson, who once worked for the INS, found that starting in 1950 (with a growing postwar demand for labor) such illegal apprehensions soared, reaching nearly 1.1 million in 1954. But once the bracero program ramped up, INS arrests fell sharply, to fewer than 100,000 through 1964. They jumped again once bracero was discontinued after opposition from unions. "Without question the bracero program," concluded a 1980 Congressional Research Service report, was "instrumental in ending the illegal alien problem of the mid-1940s and 1950s."
The point here isn't to suggest that a new guest worker program with Mexico will end all of our immigration ills. But the bracero experience does show that a migration policy that recognizes the reality of labor market forces is likely to be healthier both for workers and the rule of law. As long as higher wage jobs exist in the U.S., Mexicans (and others) will migrate here to fill those jobs and feed their families and dreams.
Short of doing things that would offend American values -- such as threatening to shoot border crossers -- we can't stop immigrants from coming. Those conservatives who fret about "illegals" ought to favor some kind of work-visa program that gives these strivers the option of working here legally.