The US border with Mexico  in Nogales, Arizona. Photo: Lucy Nicholson, Reuters
The US border with Mexico in Nogales, Arizona. Photo: Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

The US faces now two distinct problems with immigration.  One, how to tackle the immigrants who came in illegally and now work and settled in the US; the second: how to change the laws moving forward to mitigate the problem and assure orderly, legal migration.

While obviously there are no reliable data concerning the demographic composition of illegal migrants crossing the borders from Mexico, pictures appear to be a good proxy in this case.  The pictures show relatively young men crossing deserts on foot, climbing barriers, and running over distances.  Briefly, these are relatively young men, in good health, looking for work or for types of work that they cannot find in Mexico.

In a way they are not different from the migration from Europe about a century ago from Italy or other parts of Europe, of young men, who often left their families behind.  If these young men made it, they brought the families to the US. If they did not, they went back: it was a case of swim or sink.  In this sense that migration a century ago was very different: An estimated 49 per cent of Italians who migrated to the Americas between 1905 (when return migration statistics began) and 1920 returned then to Italy.  Of course, those were times when there were no welfare benefits, no Medicare, not many well-endowed charities.

Imagine a situation where the US would create a temporary working status not just for the accredited professions that NAFTA already grants (the so-called TN visa), that is being granted to only a few thousand Mexican citizens with credentials, but also for workers with lesser education. The TNs are temporary visas, employer dependent: while the visa holder has to renew it every three years, as long as the holder of the TN visa holds the particular job that let him in the country, it is been granted.  But if the holder of the TN visa changes employment, he has to leave the US and apply for a new visa from Mexico.

What if the immigrants now illegally in the US – and not having committed any crime – would be offered temporary working visas along lines similar to the existing TN arrangement, given to, say, seasonal workers in agriculture, construction or other? The possible consequence would be that these temporary workers, mainly young men, who are either single or have young families, would be commuting legally across the border, and probably leave their families behind for the few months every year they would come working in the US.

At present, their behavior must be very different: Since they cross the borders illegally, going back to Mexico could mean they might never be able to get back in the US, in which case they have two options: They either give up on the US employment, or they try to bring their families over – and then the problems with the kids’ education, healthcare, spouses’ situation starts posing problems and imposing costs on US citizens.

The number of illegal immigrants in the US has been estimated to be about 12 million, roughly 55-60% of whom are from Mexico, so say 6.8 million. Assume that it is true that some 800,000 of them have committed criminal acts, and the US dedicates resources to find and send them back to Mexico – not a straightforward operation.  There would be then still 6 million left, who are either employed, or have wives and children: a quite unimaginable operation to push them out from the US.

But just as the US and other countries have decided from time to time to give amnesty to tax evaders – and then signaling strongly that this amnesty would be a once in a lifetime event and future tax evaders would be severely prosecuted – it would appear that the solution of a temporary visa could be applied solving the problem of illegal migrants within the US.

While the “amnesty” in this case takes the form of temporary visas to the roughly 6 million who are already illegally in the US, it also comes with strings attached: Since these people entered the country illegally, they could be never granted a green card – as long as they stay within the US on this renewable, temporary TN-kind visa, and be constrained with all the limitations that such temporary TN visa would impose upon them in terms of various rights and obligations.

With these amnesty in place, illegal migration would decline, the men working in the US may even to be happy to see their families go back to Mexico, knowing both that he could travel back and forth safely to see them and that the money they make in the US allows for a better life for their families back in Mexico.  The above appears to be a win-win situation: It is hard to imagine the alternative of pursuing, gathering and pushing out 6 million people – and to a country that is and will remain forever the US’s eternal Southern neighbor. Not much goodwill can be created from such actions.

The rights and obligations of the temporary visa holders would be clearly specified, in terms of welfare, access to medical services and schools. However, if these immigrants ever wanted to have the green-card option, then they would have to leave the US, and apply from Mexico, staying in line with all other applicants at that moment in time.

Whether the administration would pass such a band-aid, partial migration related bill, or would wait for a comprehensive re-writing of the immigration bill, of which such features would be part of, I do not know. Since re-examining all immigration issues would be an arduous task, it is likely that the Administration would first tackle tax and job-creation issues – fights it is more likely to win, than engage in migration ones, which would be much tougher to solve.

Would a wall still be needed once such “temporary worker” visas would be granted?

Perhaps, but not to deal with illegal migration, but with the more than the roughly estimated $20-$36 billion drug trade crossing the US-Mexican border every year. The Mexican government may not even object sharing a significant part of the cost of this wall, since it should be as interested in weakening the corrupting, devastating, frightening impact the drug trade has on the country, just as the US administration is interested in controlling the devastating impact drugs have on the US youth and gang wars in its cities.

Reuven Brenner

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.

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