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The economics of border security


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Alan Eder
Columnist
By Alan Eder
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 14, 2005
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Cross the border from Nogales, Ariz., to Nogales, Mexico, and you will notice both countries are separated by stark economic disparities - a contrast between the rule of law and presence of infrastructure in Arizona and corruption and a lack of services in Mexico.

This dichotomy is responsible for the influx of undocumented immigrants into our country, yet our leaders seem to miss this point. Two points of focus must be recognized: The U.S. needs access to cheap, foreign labor, and at the same time the solution to the immigration problem lies in the economic development of Mexico.

Americans are unable to confront the fact that access to cheap and expendable labor is necessary. The borderland economies of California, Arizona and New Mexico simply could not run without it.

A recent film, "A Day Without a Mexican," posits this reality, asking what the state of California would be like if all Mexicans (both legal and illegal) disappeared from the labor economy. After a mysterious fog harbors the disappearance of the Mexican population, the state is in utter ruins. Crops wither and die, restaurants close, and families have trouble finding housemaids.

While unlikely, the movie presents an interesting notion - that the border states would not function in the same way if access to a large pool of labor was not present.

Those who support closing the borders and deporting illegal immigrants need to ponder this economic implication carefully.

Immigrants buy American goods and services - a point lost on conservatives. They purchase food, housing, cars and clothes. They create jobs through their purchases, and through their tax dollars they subsidize Social Security and Medicare - services that many will never use.

This is evidenced in a 2001 report by Alan Greenspan, who informed Congress that immigrants, including undocumented workers, pay $70 billion in taxes annually while using $43 billion in services. Moreover, a study by the Urban Institute found that undocumented workers contribute $2.7 billion to Social Security per year.

But this contribution, in effect, is unseen, while the negative is readily apparent. While immigrants contribute greatly to the American economy in unnoticed ways, they also take resources away - they pay into Column A, but at the same time, they subtract from Column B.

While Mexican immigrants subsidize the American way of life, they also cost the border counties millions. While their wages line the coffers of corporations and create jobs, they do not ultimately pay for the criminal acts that other immigrants commit or the services that are used.

In this view, the United States, and particularly Arizona, pays greatly in fighting drug and crime infractions committed by illegal immigrants. Costs are also paid in terms of educating the children of illegal immigrants and emergency hospital care.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, housing illegal prisoners costs the U.S. $1.6 billion annually. The U.S. also spends $12 billion annually educating illegal immigrant children. Finally, experts estimate that nationwide emergency medical care to illegal immigrants may total as much as $1.45 billion a year.

With all of these bills, comprehensive immigration reform remains necessary. Discussion of a guest worker program must resume, and it must be renewed by the president. Rep. Jim Kolbe already advocated increasing the number of work visas available for immigrants, a proposal that would help reduce the number of unlawful entries in Arizona.

But above all, economic reform should be pursued. Incentives must be in place in order to prevent immigrants from crossing in the first place, because our current policy of militarizing the border is ineffective and wasteful.

For example, during the 1990s, the federal government increased the number of border patrol agents from 3,600 to 10,000, but instead of preventing crossings, illegal immigration increased by an estimated 5.5 million. Clearly, throwing more money at guards and barriers will not fix the problem.

Instead, the supply aspects of the issue must be attacked - those who come here are in search of a better life, but if this life were already available at home, there would be no reason to come here in the first place.

If our leaders truly want to curtail illegal entry into the U.S., economic investment in infrastructure and job creation in Mexico must be pursued on both the part of the Mexican and American people.

Alan Eder is a senior majoring in Spanish and political science. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.



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