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By Ben Winograd

U.S. border policy at heart of immigrant crisis

In a letter to the editor Saturday, Al Hinton of Sierra Vista took issue with the headline of a July 20 guest opinion – “Inhumane U.S. policy takes life of beloved brother” – about a migrant who disappeared while crossing the border.

Hinton’s letter posed four questions that, left unanswered, could convince readers that U.S. policy past and present has no impact on migration from Mexico, legal or otherwise. Adding to the discussion, then, are some responses to Hinton’s questions.

Question 1: “Which inhumane policy causes Mexico’s economy to be so poor?”

U.S. economic policies do affect Mexico, sometimes adversely, and undoubtedly have caused many Mexicans to migrate illegally. One cannot discount the impact on small Mexican farmers of domestic U.S. agricultural subsidies, especially under NAFTA. (To be fair, the Mexican government also gives subsidies to large farmers.)

Also, we must account for the recent conduct of some U.S. companies under our trade policies. Many set up maquiladoras along the border, drawing workers from southern Mexico, only to pull up shop for China, leaving those laborers stranded. Of course, Mexico faces economic problems that only it can solve. Ultimately, the Mexican government must invest more in education to keep its citizens home and boost its economy.

Question 2: “Which inhumane policy causes Mexico and Mexicans to encourage nationals to move to the United States?”

The premise of this question is simply wrong. The vast majority of Mexicans who migrate north do so out of necessity, not by choice or encouragement. Few even consider it. I recently worked for a polling company in Mexico City. When asked, “Have you considered working in the United States?” about 15 percent of respondents said yes. Besides, no Mexican politician prefers Mexicans to spend money and pay taxes abroad, and no family wants to be separated.

Question 3: “Which inhumane U.S. policy causes Mexicans to break our laws and put themselves in jeopardy?”

Only in the past 40 years has U.S. law criminalized and restricted Mexican migration, which had carried on without quotas for the previous 400 years. Mexicans could cross our border without limitation until 70 years after the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. Legally, the concept of an illegal immigrant from Mexico did not exist until Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, the same year it created the Border Patrol.

In fact, Mexicans seeking work in the United States faced no numerical cap until Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965. So while it is not inhumane to change the rules in the middle of the game, when so much is at stake, it is unreasonable to expect all players to follow them.

Question 4: “Which inhumane U.S. policy encourages coyotes (smugglers) – usually Mexican nationals, sometimes Americans – to take money to dump illegal immigrants in the desert?”

To be sure, U.S. border policy does not encourage coyotes to abandon migrants in the desert. But it certainly enables them to. Twelve years ago, migrants stuck to urban areas and less than half hired smugglers. The U.S. Border Patrol then erected walls around El Paso, San Diego and Nogales, pushing migrants into remote areas and the waiting arms of smugglers. The result: Illegal immigration was funneled through Arizona’s deserts, demand (and prices) for coyotes increased, profit-happy drug traffickers entered the people-smuggling business and thousands of migrants died.

In addition to Hinton’s questions, it is worth noting what he considered the cause of illegal immigration. He wrote, “The only policy causing any of this is the willingness of American companies and individuals to hire illegal immigrants. That’s not U.S. policy.”

It is easy – and correct – to blame U.S. businesses for encouraging illegal immigration. But it is disingenuous to blame employers who hire undocumented workers without mentioning the government that lets them do it or the consumers who reap the benefits.

U.S. immigration officials devote far more resources to guard the border than to prosecute those hiring the migrants who slip past. Meanwhile, the public unreservedly benefits from employers who hire the undocumented. When dining at a restaurant, who checks the documents of the kitchen staff? When buying chicken or steak, who asks the legality of the workers who processed the meat? Need I mention the status of many who pick fruits and vegetables, tend gardens and clean hotel rooms?

Hinton is right that not every cause and problem related to illegal immigration is the fault of the United States. But some are. While reasonable people can debate the humanity of U.S. policy, all should remember why illegal immigration continues to occur.

Once migrants pass the border, employers promptly hire them, the government readily ignores them and, most of all, the public quietly accepts them.

Ben Winograd is a Tucson-based freelance reporter who covers migration and the U.S.-Mexico border.

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