No Count of Green Card Commuters at Our Borders — And It's My Fault

By David North on September 1, 2020

My colleague Art Arthur wrote the other day about an odd part of our odd immigration system: the role of the green card holders who live in Mexico (or to a much lesser extent Canada) and who work in the United States, and how they are clearly not residents of this country, but retain permanent resident alien status anyway.

Most of these green card commuters have jobs in southern California or southern Texas, most of the jobs are relatively ill-paid by U.S. standards, but well-paid by Mexican ones and thus they get the best of all possible worlds, an income set in the United States and most expenses set at Mexican rates. Housing is notably cheaper on the other side of the border.

Arthur noted: "By the way, at the time [the Supreme Court] issued Bustos, there were 42,000 daily LPR commuters from Mexico, 10,000 from Canada, and some 8,300 seasonal commuters, by INS's estimate. How many are there today? I have no idea, because DHS does not publish statistics on this unique cohort of "non-resident permanent resident aliens."

Bustos was issued in 1974.

After the defeat of Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, I was a Democratic political appointee on the outer edges of the LBJ White House, and a former appointee in the U.S. Labor Department (DOL). I was about to be unemployed, and when talking to a then-assistant secretary of Labor, he said: "David, we are giving research grants to people like you who can produce acceptable research proposals, you might look into that."

I did, and decided — here's the connection missing so far — to study green card commuters. The research grant was signed at 4:30 in the afternoon of the last day of the Johnson administration; by that time I was off the White House payroll. I had a wonderful year, partially at the southern border, doing the research, which was published both by DOL and the then-Subcommittee on Migratory Labor of the U.S. Senate. I concluded that the green card commuters' existence related to the influence of their U.S. borderland employers, who benefited from their low wages. It was the first of my many migration-related research projects.

A few years later I got a phone call from someone in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He said, as I recall: "Mr. North, are you still using the data we are collecting on green card commuters?"

I said: " Why are you calling me?"

He said: "You are the only one we know who uses these data, and if you aren't using them [as I was not] we will stop collecting them."

So the data collection ended. I never have had a similar phone call in my entire life.

While most of the commuters we studied (I had some part-time help at the border) were Mexicans who had secured green card status before moving back to Mexico, there were also some 7,000 to 8,000 U.S. citizens, again mostly of Mexican descent, who lived in that country and commuted to jobs in the States.

We also found that the rabbi in McAllen, Texas, at the time, was a green card commuter. As I recall he was not a Mexican national.

For a summary of that research proposal see here.