An Innovative Third Way to Break Immigration Gridlock

Securing the southern border stands as one of the biggest obstacles to immigration overhaul. Most Republicans, before they endorse a substantive legislative solution, want an impenetrable border to stanch the flow of undocumented workers into the U.S. Most Democrats want to move forward without waiting for the border to be completely sealed.

A recent Bloomberg Government analysis authored by Matthew Hummer may offer an innovative third way to break the gridlock.

So far both sides agree on two central elements of any bill: citizenship, or at least green cards, for 11 million illegal immigrants; and additional work visas for highly skilled immigrants, many of them educated at American universities. But until the government can demonstrate effective control over the Mexican border, this surprising bipartisan consensus may be for naught.

Hummer’s research points to a clever compromise that would defuse this controversy by taking account of several fundamental forces driving illegal immigration and Washington’s newfound budget austerity.

The solution: Spend several billion dollars now to improve border infrastructure and to help boost U.S.-Mexico trade.  A modest amount spent to encourage exports would create more jobs in Mexico, decreasing emigration, and prove more cost-effective than spending tens of billions of dollars to gain control of remote border areas.

This conclusion follows from three propositions. First, economic factors are potentially more important than heightened border control efforts in limiting illegal immigration. BGOV research shows a tight correlation between apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the southern border and the ratio of gross domestic product growth rates in the U.S. and Mexico. When that ratio increased during the 1980s, border apprehensions rose to 1.7 million in 1986 from 760,000 in 1980. Conversely, when the GDP ratio falls, as it did during most of the post-1986 period, apprehensions decline.

The trend has become even more pronounced since 2006, when the Mexican economy outperformed the U.S. economy in all but one year. That led to a precipitous decline in apprehensions to fewer than 400,000 in 2012 from more than 1 million in 2006.

Second, border security is expensive. The Customs and Border Protection Agency spent about $11.6 billion on border enforcement in fiscal year 2012, increasing more than 30 percent from the average annual amount spent during President George W. Bush’s second term. Better border control driven by more security spending won’t necessarily reduce apprehensions to less than 400,000 a year. BGOV estimates that it might cost $28 billion a year to completely seal the border by 2019.

In this age of budget austerity, it’s inconceivable that another $16 billion a year could be found to completely insulate the border.

Third, more trade between the two countries would prove a cost-effective way to bring down an already reduced level of illegal immigration. BGOV research shows another important correlation: more Mexican exports means more stable employment for young Mexican males, who most often cross the border illegally to search for work in the U.S.

 This finding suggests that if more money is spent at the border, it’s better to improve and expand checkpoints, which would reduce delays in moving imported and exported goods, than to build and monitor a longer fence. More exports of goods to the U.S. from Mexico would expand the current $500 billion bilateral trade relationship and provide more jobs for Mexican workers at home.

Congress can literally bridge the divides on an issue that begs for compromise by understanding the forces driving illegal immigration from Mexico and focusing on spending border security money in the most cost-effective manner.

For more information about BGov, see

You can follow me on Twitter @BobLitan


What do you think about this article? Comment below!