Binational Task Force Offers Common Sense and a Leap of Faith at the Border

There has been a lot of noise and confusion in Congress and in the press about the meaning of "border security". But in today's blog I want to highlight a statement about the connection between border security and immigration reform legislation that was made at the Wilson Center on Thursday.

The statement by MIT professor Chappell Lawson was provocative in two respects.

First, it refuted the notion that border security must precede immigration reform. Second, it showed confidence in what I believe is the dubious notion that "comprehensive reform" will solve the problem of illegal immigration by channeling current illegal flows into an orderly program of guestworkers.

Lawson began with the blunt assertion that the notion that "comprehensive reform" depends on border security "totally inverts the problem" facing Congress.

"The border is not necessarily the best mechanism for controlling illegal flows", he said. "Illegal flows have their origins in demand in the interior of the country." Therefore, he continued, immigration reform hinges on governmental action such as worksite measures to ensure that employers hire only those who are authorized to work in the United States.

Such steps, said Lawson, "would remove from law enforcement activity the management of this enormous flow — in the past enormous, now a moderate flow — of undocumented migrants."

Lawson made the comment at a panel discussion held by the Binational Task Force on the United States-Mexico Border. The task force, which was formed under the the auspices of the Pacific Council for International Policy and the Mexican Council on Foreign Relation, assembled former government officials, civic leaders, and business leaders from the two countries

I think Lawson's observation that interior enforcement is a sine qua non of border security makes great common sense. Like many others, I have long been frustrated by the hypocritical disconnect between the sturm, drang, and expense of federal investment in the Border Security Industrial Complex and the farcical failure to establish a universal system of worksite enforcement.

But the idea that "comprehensive reform" is going to solve the problem of large-scale illegal immigration at the border strikes me as a remarkably naive leap of faith.

First, it assumes that Congress is going to approve a guestworker program that will embrace the half million or so illegal immigrants who were making it across the border ever year before the recession hit.

That assumption was articulated with admirable candor on Thursday by another member of the task force. Co-Chairman Andres Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister of Mexico, said the illegal immigration problem would be solved "if immigration reform functions and we get to the point where it becomes easy to legally cross the border to get a job."

That such a respected figure as Rozental should publicly articulate such an open-border labor market vision is startling not only because of what he envisions from the U.S. Congress. It is also startling because of the cooperative response it anticipates from the millions of people eager to leave Third World misery in countries that have developed immigrant networks that have channeled millions of people to the United States.

Does Rozental — who like the rest of the task force wants Mexicans to get preferential access to guest worker visas — really expect acquiescence and cooperation from non-Mexicans who can't get a visa? And does he really think Mexico, whose immigration authorities are notoriously corrupt and brutal in their mistreatment of foreigners who cross Mexican territory on the way to El Norte, will be able to bring order to the situation?