During a press conference on March 23, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — popularly known as “AMLO” — asserted that President Biden is to blame for the recent surge of migrants that has created a disaster at the border. The next day, the Wall Street Journal, noting that most of the migrants are AMLO’s constituents, reported that many of them are coming here to work, not fleeing oppression.
None of this is news to me — in fact, more than a year ago (when he was “candidate and former VP Joe Biden”), I explained that the now-president’s proposed policies would:
[S]erve as a magnet to hundreds of thousands if not millions of migrants seeking illegal entry to the United States, safe in the knowledge that if they were simply able to make it to the Southwest border, they could live and work in the United States indefinitely, regardless of the strength of their asylum claims, or even if they had any such claims at all.
Respectfully, an objective observer hardly needed my almost 30 years of immigration experience to reach the same conclusion. That said, sometimes you need an outside opinion to confirm what you already know, and AMLO — a plain-talking leftist populist, tells it like it is.
And here is how he laid it out:
Expectations were created that with the Government of President Biden there would be a better treatment of migrants. And this has caused Central American migrants, and also from our country, wanting to cross the border thinking that it is easier to do so.
If you read between the lines of her March 10 press conference, former Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, who was then heading up the Biden administration’s response to the border, made a similar point.
When asked whether it was a “coincidence” that the “historic surge at the border started” when Biden replaced former President Trump, Jacobson answered: “Surges tend to respond to hope, and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of pent up demand.”
As an aside, I am guessing that “pent up demand” is a talking point that is making its way around those in favor of a more relaxed border policy, because it was a key point in a Washington Post piece that my colleague Steven Camarota and I separately analyzed on March 24. Spoiler alert: We both disagree that it is a driver for illegal immigration.
The very concept of “pent up demand” suggests that there are a set number of foreign nationals who are awaiting an opportunity to enter the United States illegally, and they are just looking for the chance. But illegal immigration, like any other human interest, responds to incentives and opportunities. Simply put, when the price and opportunity costs fall, your interest rises.
Here is a real-world example: I would love my son (I will call him “Joel”) to have the prestige and benefits of a Princeton education. But (though he is an excellent student), he does not have the grades and scores to gain admission, and four years there would cost me almost $470,000 — way outside the price range of a think-tank pundit.
If the college were to suddenly tell me that “Princeton can use a guy like Joel", and that they will pay the costs of attendance and guarantee he will make $200K his first year out, we would be packing up the car and crossing the border into New Jersey.
That is an almost exact analogy for what is happening at the border today. The average monthly wage in El Salvador (for example) was $375 in 2020, compared to a median weekly salary in the United States in the fourth quarter of FY 2020 of $984, roughly equaling out to just less than $4,000 per month.
You might not think of employment in the United States as a sinecure akin to Joel’s offer from Princeton, but for many in the countries from which most illegal migrants come, it is.
And, like Princeton’s sudden easing its standards for Joel, Biden’s rhetoric lowers the opportunity costs of illegal entry. At the border, those are the prices smugglers charge (and the inherent dangers in travelling to the United States, most of which are poorly reported, and therefore little known), vs. the likelihood that once they cross into the United States, the migrant will be able to stay and work.
As AMLO’s (and Jacobson’s) statements show, those opportunity costs are — in the estimation of the migrants themselves — much lower today than they were on January 19.
Which brings me to the Wall Street Journal’s article. It notes (as I have) that: “Most of the migrants are Mexicans, often men in search of work with the pandemic easing and the U.S. economy set to boom.”
The paper reports, in particular, that: “Border patrol agents say the majority of single adults they catch are men, entering to look for work such as picking fruits and vegetables, roofing and dishwashing.”
The average monthly wage in Mexico is $457, while the average hourly wage for a roofer in the United States is $17.58. There are about 20 working days a month, so assuming an eight-hour work day, that is $2,128.80 per month. Dishwashers (my first job) make $11.45 per hour ($1,832 per month), and agricultural workers earn a median wage of $13.25 per hour ($2,120 per month).
Do the math, and you will see why they are coming.
That said, smugglers are savvy (if exceptionally evil) people. They know that if Border Patrol is occupied with a surge of migrant families and children (which they are now), they will be less able to apprehend run-of the mill adult aliens entering to work. Again, the opportunity costs for illegal entry are falling, so now is the time to come.
In fact, the Journal reports that 6,500 migrants recently made it past Border Patrol in a week, which probably explains why there have been deadly attempts by smugglers to avoid apprehension of late.
By the way, it appears that Jacobson has been pushed aside as border czar for Vice President Kamala Harris. The Washington Free Beacon notes that Harris “has a history of dismissing illegal immigration and the federal government's role in stopping it”.
I wish her the best, but I have a feeling that the opportunity costs of illegal entry have just fallen further. And, that the disaster at the border is just going to get worse.