Border Policy and the Laws of Supply and Demand
James’ post on President Obama’s move to send National Guard troops to the US-Mexican border is pretty much spot-on in regards to its criticisms of the policy move. He specifically notes:
We’re not dealing here with terrorists. Nor, despite heated rhetoric to the contrary, are we suffering an “invasion.” The problems we’re dealing with are migrant workers desperate for work and drug cartels fighting for turf.
Further, it should noted that the two problems are different. Yes, there are some smugglers who traffic both in people and drugs, and yes, they are crossing the same border, but ultimately the situations are different ones that have to be dealt with as distinct policy realms, even if they have overlap. In simple terms, the solutions for the drug trafficking problem are not the same as the solutions for illegal immigrant problem and we need to understand that fact. Simplistic cries of “seal of the border” do not amount to actual policy solutions.
There is one way in which both drugs and migrant labor are linked: both are driven by supply and demand.
Writing on the topic of illegal immigration, Patrick Corcoran rightly observes:
Illegal immigrants respond to the labor market, not an independently existing desire to leave their homeland and, in many cases, their family. When either the labor demand in the US or the labor supply in Mexico dries up, so will Mexican immigration.
It is both that simple and that complex.
He further notes:
One point that gets lost in a lot of the anger about immigration is that, generally speaking, immigration is a mutually beneficial relationship: both the immigrant and the country that receives him win.
I am sure some readers will greatly dispute this fact, but it is nonetheless true. As problematic as the entire process is, it is clear that the maids, gardeners, fast food workers, fruit pickers, construction workers and the like are serving a purpose in our economy. Further, despite popular perception in some quarters, they do pay taxes: sales taxes, property taxes via rent, excise taxes, and frequently payroll taxes. In regards to said payroll taxes, the irony is that any social security taxes paid by undocumented workers goes to subsidize social security (because the workers in question are using SS numbers not their own and they cannot collect on the system). As the NYT reported back in 2005: Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions:
As the debate over Social Security heats up, the estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.
None of this is to argue that there is no cost to illegal immigrants or that they represent an unvarnished good. However, the situation is far, far more complex than many who get really upset about the situation make it out to be (where it is often painted all all cost and no benefit). Certainly it should be clear that illegal immigrations is far from only a problem. Again, the labor demand is there and I have long maintained (for example) the forces of supply and demand are quite powerful and more difficult to contain than many proponents of border control wish to acknowledge. Indeed, the clear existence of this labor market is a solid argument for comprehensive immigration reform that would include making it far easier for this market to work.
Back to Corocan:
The Arizona ranchers who don’t want their land tramped through every night have a legitimate grievance, but that’s more of an argument for the government establishing a nationwide quota for manual labor roughly in line with what the market demands. Today, however, the quantity of low-skilled immigrant visas stands at about 1 percent of the total undocumented population.
The Arizona law can’t overcome the laws of supply and demand. It may drive immigrants into ranches in New Mexico and Texas, but the national panorama won’t be very different. And any law draconian enough to actually put a dent into illegal immigration will necessarily offend our sensibilities and harm our economy.
It would be nice if we could get a more realistic discussion on this topic.
Also, it should be noted that roughly 40% of illegal immigrants in the US are not border crossers, but rather visa over-stayers. As such, even if we could totally seal the border between the US and Mexico with a force shield of Trekian proportions, we still wouldn’t have solved the problem.
One of the political observations I would make is that the segment of US politics that is most vehement on the question of border control is also the segment that is most interested (at least rhetorically) in both promoting capitalism and smaller government. However, on this topic that appear to wish to repeal the laws of supply and demand and to increase the power of the government.
Photo source: click.