Reformist Mexican President Vincente Fox raises eyebrows with his suggestion that over a decade or two Nafta should evolve into something like the European Union, with open borders for not only goods and investment but also people. He can rest assured that there is one voice north of the Rio Grande that supports his vision. To wit, this newspaper.
We annually celebrate the Fourth of July with a paean to immigration, the force that tamed this vast continent and built this great Republic. This is not simply history; immigration continues to refresh and nourish America; we would be better off with more of it. Indeed, during the immigration debate of 1984 we suggested an ultimate goal to guide passing policies--a constitutional amendment: "There shall be open borders."
The naysayers who want to limit or abolish immigration look backward to a history they do not even understand. Each new immigrant group has been derided as backward, unclean, crime-ridden and so on; each has gone on to adopt the American dream of a free and independent people, and to win advancement economically, politically, socially. The ability to assimilate is the heart of the American genius, precisely the trait that sets the United States off from other nations. Immigration makes the U.S. what it is.
On this Fourth of July we celebrate this history more forthrightly than we have in two decades. Anti-immigrant hysteria peaked in 1996, when the California Republican Party self-destructed with anti-immigrant themes. Today the GOP is led by George W. Bush, who told campaign audiences "family values do not stop at the Rio Grande." The employer sanctions in the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill are now recognized as windmill tilting. Congress has repeatedly raised the limits on H-1B visas for engineers and such, to 195,000 a year from an original 65,000. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court twice held that aliens are people too, entitled to such basic rights as the presumption of innocence, petty 1996 legislation notwithstanding.
At the same time, the U.S. is gradually relearning the secret of assimilation--every informal recognition of cultural differences but no formal ones. "Bilingual education," which trapped schoolchildren in a Hispanic ghetto for the benefit of ethnic politicians and a few teachers, is on its way out. Racial quotas generally are under increasing suspicion. In the next census, in 2010, increasingly meaningless and irritating questions about ethnicity may be abolished. This too bodes well for future acceptance of immigrants.
Immigration now runs about a million a year against a population of 275 million, a rate that remains below the historical average. The proportion of immigrants with postgraduate education is three times the native rate. New immigrants are no longer eligible for welfare, removing that bugaboo. A study by the National Research Council in 1997 found that while unschooled immigrants are net recipients of taxpayer money in the first generation, their children repay these costs.
About half of current immigrants are Hispanic, though the Asian component is projected to grow rapidly. By far the largest single source is President Fox's Mexico, a Third World nation of nearly 100 million inhabitants sharing a 2,000-mile border with the U.S. The opportunity north of the border is inevitably a huge magnet for the poor but ambitious. There is no realistic way to stop the resulting flow of people--certainly no way that would be acceptable to the American conscience...
Sealing the border against people willing to risk death is not a practical option, let alone a morally attractive one. The only hope is to manage the flow of people in a constructive and humane way. As President Fox says, "By building up walls, by putting up armies, by dedicating billions of dollars like every border state is doing to avoid migration, is not the way to go."
Item one in any agenda to ease border problems would be rapid economic development to provide opportunity within Mexico. It's entirely possible that Mexico will become the next tiger economy. It has the huge advantage of free trade with the world's largest market. For all its poverty, it has a large first-world economic sector and a technocratic elite educated at the best American universities. Contrary to stereotypes, the general population is exceptionally hard-working. Politically President Fox promises a fresh start after ending 71 years of one-party rule. If Mexico can avoid the currency depredations that have marred its last quarter-century, the immigration problem may start to fade.
North of the border, the solution to the problem of illegal immigration is to make it legal, or at least to normalize the movement of people. A program of temporary work visas would allow Mexicans to go home; the incentive for undocumented aliens now is to stay rather than face the border barrier a second time.
Laws and regulations can generally be made more generous. The 1996 Border Patrol expansion is a dubious expense, expanding a cops-and-robbers game that sometimes turns deadly....
Another amnesty for undocumented aliens is already in the air; every decade or so Congress somehow or another faces this reality. Even opening Nafta borders completely, I would dare to suggest, might not unleash a new flood of immigrants. There is a limit to the number who actually want to come, and experience suggests that many of those who do already can find a way. And after all, we did have a long history of unlimited quotas for Western Hemisphere immigrants, ending only in 1965.
President Fox is nothing if not a visionary. Many scoffed at his ambition to unseat the machine that had run Mexico for generations; now they scoff at his proposals on immigration. But over the decade or two he mentioned, a Nafta with open borders may yet prove not so wild a dream.