Border wall won't keep out overstayers

If there was any doubt that the $1.9 billion that President Bush wants to spend to build a wall and post 6,000 more troops along the U.S.-Mexico border will not do much to solve the immigration problem, a new study shows that about half of all undocumented workers in the United States have entered the country legally and overstayed their visas.
According to the study released this week by the Pew Research Center, between 45 percent and 50 percent of the estimated 12 million unauthorized migrants in the United States have entered the country with legal visas, most of them by air or through U.S. government border crossings.
In U.S. immigration circles, they are known as "overstayers" -- people who come with visas allowing them to stay a limited amount of time in this country and remain after their visas have expired.
The Pew study estimates that up to 5.5 million of them entered the United States with tourist, business or study visas, mostly through U.S. airports, while up to 500,000 have done so through border crossings controlled by U.S. immigration. In total, their numbers range from 4.5 million to six million, the study says.
Simplistic claims
Contrary to the simplistic claims by Mexico-bashing politicians and cable television talking heads that all undocumented workers are sneaking their way into the United States across the desert, the Pew Center estimates that "the annual flow of new unauthorized migrants is almost evenly divided between those who enter legally and those who do not."
Perhaps because it is harder for Mexicans to get U.S. visas, or because it's easier for them to cross the border illegally, only 1.7 percent of Mexicans legally entering the United States overstay their visas. By comparison, 2.4 percent of South Americans are overstaying their visas, and 3.2 percent of Central Americans.
Will the 370-mile border fence and the additional 6,000 National Guard troops stop the illegal immigration flow along the 2,000-mile border? I asked Roberto Suro, head of the Pew Hispanic Center.
"The United States has greatly increased its border enforcement over the last 12 to 15 years, in terms of fencing, and personnel and technology," Suro responded. "If the goal was to reduce the size of illegal population, it hasn't worked."
Indeed, there are many reasons enforcement-only measures don't work.
First, as shown in the Pew study, many unauthorized immigrants are arriving on American Airlines, Delta or other commercial airliners, so no amount of fences or troops along the border will make any difference.
Second, unless we build a 2,000-mile border fence, which would cost more than most Americans care to pay, a partial fence will only cause migrants to make a detour and cross the border somewhere else.
Third, more controls along the border may actually increase the number of unauthorized immigrants, because those who make it to the United States may think twice before returning home.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, U.S. government border control spending has grown from $700 million a year in 1986 to about $3 billion today, yet the number of undocumented migrants has grown from four million to up to 12 million over the same period.
"Border enforcement alone doesn't work," David Dixon, a senior policy analyst with the Institute, told me Wednesday. "What is needed is a more comprehensive enforcement package, including work site and interior-focused strategies."
Mending fences
My conclusion: Enforcement-based measures may help Bush mend fences with Republican right-wing demagogues in Congress and could help the White House divert national attention away from the Iraq War in November's congressional elections. But neither partial fences along the border nor "interior-focused strategies" will stop the flow of unauthorized immigrants.
The only way to prevent more Latin Americans from moving to the United States in coming years will be to start narrowing the income gap between the United States and its southern neighbors.
This can only be done through greater economic integration, foreign aid conditioned to responsible economic behavior and creative ideas, such as the plan I proposed recently to allow a greater number of the 100 million Americans who will retire over the next three decades to seek affordable healthcare in Mexico and Central America.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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