U.S.-Mexico Border

Each day, approximately three thousand Mexicans and Central Americans enter the United States illegally by walking across the Southwestern border.

Their journey is expensive and often treacherous. Migrants typically pay $2,000 to $6,000 to coyotes to be smuggled into the country, and they risk dehydration and overexposure on the multiple-day trek through the desert and mountains. Some four hundred migrants have been found dead along the border in each of the last five years. Migrants come to the United States for many different reasons, but most boil down to simple economics. Mexicans and Central Americans employed at the minimum wage earn about $5 per day in their home countries; subsistence farmers must survive on less. Meanwhile, jobs in the United States—in construction, agriculture, meatpacking, domestic service, and restaurants and hotels—are readily available and pay a relatively lucrative $7 to $10 per hour.

A large immigrant population has both benefits and costs. Cheap labor means lower prices for goods and services — a benefit for all Americans. The costs, however, are shared unequally. Low-skill laborers in the U.S. suffer the most because they must compete for jobs with illegal immigrants who are willing to work for lower wages.

The federal government has moved ploddingly during the last fifteen years to deal with the growing wave of illegal immigrants. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Border Patrol (now part of the Department of Homeland Security) instituted Operation Hold the Line in Texas and Operation Gatekeeper in California to ramp up enforcement efforts along the border. High-tech walls and thousands of new Border Patrol agents have fortified the urban borders and virtually eliminated migrant traffic in once-important crossing points like El Paso and San Diego. However, these measures have failed to reduce the total number of migrants coming across. They have instead redirected the flow to the deserts and mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. Now, an estimated eleven to twelve million undocumented migrants — some eight million of whom are from Latin America — reside illegally in the United States.

Everyone agrees that U.S. border and immigration policies aren’t working and must be reformed. The details of such reform, however, remain up for debate. Opinions are wide-ranging, but converge on a few principal themes: national security, human rights, culture, and the economy. Some argue that our most important priority is national security, and they favor even greater enforcement—perhaps entailing a two-thousand-mile border fence or the permanent deployment of the National Guard on the porous border. Others believe that for economic or humanitarian reasons, a guest-worker program is needed to bring more Mexicans and Central Americans to the country legally. Not wanting to ostracize proponents of either major view, lawmakers have failed to adopt effective immigration reforms.

For more information, please consult:

* Hanson, Gordon H. “Illegal Migration from Mexico to the United States.” Journal of Economic Literature, 2007.
* Passel, Jeffrey S. “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population.” Pew Hispanic Center, 2005.

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