Drop in migrants to the U.S. shows the major role of economics in immigration

The Department of Homeland Security last week released tallies showing arrests of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border have dropped to levels not seen since the early 1970s. The statistics are a commonly used way of gauging undocumented immigration to the U.S.

While this past year has seen the passage of Arizona SB1070 copycat legislation in a handful of states, as well as a brutal deportation policy by the Obama administration resulting in over 1 million since he took office, we are also seeing the deepening effects of the economic crisis on the U.S. workforce.

While the economic indicators say that we are hovering above the cusp of a recession, the reality for U.S. workers is far worse than the indicators reveal.

The unemployment rate, which has dipped slightly in recent months, hides the increasing number of workers who have given up search for work. The unemployment rate does not include anyone who has not looked for a job in the last 4 weeks. More and more U.S. unemployed workers are giving up the search for a job, meaning their unemployment is not reflected in the official figures.

At the same time, job growth has not matched the corresponding growth in the population. The two figures combined create a grim picture for those hoping to land a job. As the Globe and Mail reports, “The work force participation rate, which peaked at 67.3 per cent in March, 2000 and 66.4 per cent in January, 2007, fell another 0.2 points in November to 64 per cent. The ranks of the long-term jobless also increased to 43 per cent of those officially unemployed.”

Further, both hourly earnings and real wages are down, meaning that, despite the employment figures, what U.S. families are taking in is decreasing. As Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, opined on PBS.org, “to some extent Americans have been substituting lower wages for lost jobs – either by accepting lower wages at their current place of employment, or getting the boot and settling for lower wages elsewhere. A job is better than no job, of course, but a job with a lower wage isn’t nearly as good as a job with at the same or better wage.”

With the overall stark economic picture for U.S. workers, it is no wonder that migration rates to the U.S. have dropped. If there are no jobs for them, migrants look for them elsewhere or resign themselves to unemployment, just like 2.6 million U.S. workers this year have done.

This shows that immigration to the U.S. is highly based on necessity–the necessity of Mexicans and other immigrants to find and keep work, to send money back to their families, and to continue getting by. When the U.S. economy slumps, there are less opportunities for immigrants to provide for their families, and they have to look for other ways to get by at home or by migrating to other countries.

Anti-immigrant commentators regularly refer to immigration reform bills, like the DREAM Act, as magnets that would encourage illegal immigration if enacted. They advocate for increased border enforcement as the solution. The real magnet, however, is the prospect of providing for ones family back home. When faced with the decision between stagnation, starvation and a slow death at home on one hand, and chancing death or incarceration crossing the border for the possibility of getting by and providing for your family on the other, anyone would choose the latter. But when chancing death and incarceration does not bring better economic opportunities in the U.S., as is the case during the deepening economic crisis we are facing, then staying or returning home is a better and safer choice for many.

The biggest tragedy in this situation is that US-backed policies that have been damaging the economies of countries where immigration originates are now showing their increasingly negative impacts on our own economy. When NAFTA was passed, it was boasted by governments on both sides of the border to be a major force in decreasing illegal immigration to the US. Yet, as Public Citizen records, “the number of annual immigrants from Mexico to the United States surged from 332,000 in 1993 (the year before NAFTA) to 530,000 in 2000 – a 60 percent increase.”

Now policies that promote deregulation and give more decision-making power to big corporations and away from the people, such as NAFTA and other Free Trade policies, are having increasingly negative economic impacts on the U.S. economy and all working people are suffering, whether first generation immigrant or 10th generation.

In order to really stem illegal immigration, in times of economic boom as well as bust, the root causes of immigration–unemployment, unequal development, and oppressive agrarian policy–must be addressed. And policies that hurt workers on both sides of the border must be ended.


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