Closed-Door Policy: Mexico Vividly Illustrates How U.S. Treatment of Immigrant Workers Backfires. (A Special Report on Immigration and Work)

By Massey, Douglas S. | The American Prospect, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Closed-Door Policy: Mexico Vividly Illustrates How U.S. Treatment of Immigrant Workers Backfires. (A Special Report on Immigration and Work)


Massey, Douglas S., The American Prospect


At the dawn of the 21st century, the United States offers a contradictory model of global economic openness. American policy has relentlessly promoted open commerce, leading the way by freeing its own markets to foreign investment, trade and travel. America's own borders have become increasingly open for flows of capital, goods, commodities, information and certain favored classes of people: entrepreneurs, scientists, students, tourists and corporate employees. When it comes to the movement of ordinary labor, however, America has not sought openness. Rather, the thrust of U.S. policy since the 1950s has been to make it more difficult for workers to enter the United States in search of jobs, except via narrow programs under corporate control.

This contradiction is nowhere more apparent than in U.S. relations with Mexico, which together with Canada is our largest trading partner. Since 1986, U.S. officials have worked closely with officials in both countries to create an integrated North American economy, open to flows of goods, capital, commodities, services and information. Yet within this integrated economy we somehow, magically, do not want any labor to be moving. Against all logic, we wish to create an integrated, continent-wide economy characterized by the free movement of all factors of production except one.

This schizophrenia is manifest in the fact that, since the mid-1980s, we have moved in two diametrically opposed directions, at once promoting integration while simultaneously seeking separation. Between 1985 and 2000, total trade between Mexico and the United States increased by a factor of eight, the number of Mexican tourists quintupled, Mexican business visitors and intra-company transferees tripled, and the total number of persons crossing the border for short visits doubled. All this came about according to plan, and only intensified with enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

At the same time, however, U.S. officials have sought to maintain the illusion of separation. As trade expanded between 1985 and 2000, U.S. spending on border enforcement increased by a factor of six, the number of U.S. Border Patrol officers doubled and hours spent by agents patrolling the frontier tripled. During the 1990s, two of the top 10 fastest growing job categories in the federal workforce were "Immigration Inspector" and "Border Patrol Agent." Today the Border Patrol is the largest arms-bearing branch of the U.S. government except for the military itself, with a budget well in excess of $1 billion per year. In many border communities, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is now the largest employer.

Why has the United States chosen to militarize a peaceful border with its closest trading partner, a democratic country that poses no conceivable threat to U.S. security? The answer, I fear, rests on seriously mistaken notions about the nature of immigration in today's postindustrial, globalized economy.

The most basic misconception is that, without a heavily militarized border, the United States will be invaded by an army of destitute immigrants fleeing abject poverty, or flooded by a tidal wave of poor foreigners eager to take Americans' jobs and consume public services at taxpayer expense. Politicians--liberal as well as conservative--find the imagery of invasions and floods useful during periods of economic insecurity and rising inequality, for it deflects attention from more fundamental questions about the distribution of wealth and power in the United States. Immigrants provide a convenient scapegoat to absorb voter anger about the erosion of wages, the instability of unemployment and declining access to social benefits. Politicians and the media periodically manufacture immigration and border crises as the need arises, and the restrictiveness of immigration policies is inversely correlated with the business cycle.

The truth is that most immigrants to the United States are not desperate people fleeing poverty and social chaos overseas. …

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