Illegal Migration from Mexico to the United States
About This Event

Millions of unauthorized Mexican immigrants live and work in the United States. Their numbers are large compared to earlier waves of illegal migration to the United States and relative to Mexico’s population. The scale of illegal migration has, in turn, provoked intense concerns about its consequences for the United States Listen to Audio


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as well as deep controversy over the proper policy responses.

Please join us as Professor Gordon H. Hanson addresses the economic and social factors that influence the flow of illegal migrants from Mexico. Professor Hanson will also consider evidence on the effectiveness of policies that regulate the cross-border flow of illegal migrants and their access to U.S. jobs. L. Alan Winters, a distinguished scholar in trade and migration issues, will comment on Hanson’s remarks. AEI’s Steven J. Davis will moderate.

Agenda
12:45 p.m.
Registration
1:00
Introduction:
Steven J. Davis, AEI
1:10
Presenter:
Gordon H. Hanson, University of California, San Diego
Discussant:
L. Alan Winters, World Bank
3:00
Adjournment
Event Summary

January 2007

Illegal Migration from Mexico to the United States

Millions of unauthorized Mexican immigrants live and work in the United States. Their numbers are large compared to earlier waves of illegal migration to the United States and relative to Mexico’s population. The scale of illegal migration has, in turn, provoked intense concerns about its consequences for the United States as well as deep controversy over the proper policy responses.

At an AEI conference on January 8, 2007, Gordon H. Hanson addressed the economic and social factors that influence the flow of illegal migrants from Mexico. He also considered evidence on the effectiveness of policies that regulate the cross-border flow of illegal migrants and their access to U.S. jobs. L. Alan Winters commented on Hanson’s remarks, and AEI’s Steven J. Davis moderated.

Gordon H. Hanson
University of California, San Diego

There are two options for policy on Mexican immigration. The first is greater interior and border enforcement, forcing current illegal immigrants to go home and deterring others from trying to immigrate illegally. The second is to accommodate immigrants, giving them a path to citizenship and legalizing those who are already here.

There are roughly 11 million immigrants from Mexico in the United States, 6 million of whom are illegal. These numbers are imprecise because government surveys tend to undercount illegal immigrants, and up to 15 percent of them may not be included in official figures. Each year about 1 million are caught at the border, as there has been a dramatic increase in border enforcement and related spending over the past fifteen years.

Migrants weigh the costs and benefits of immigration. The major benefit is the availability of higher incomes in the United States, but the major cost is the psychic penalty of leaving home. The average smuggling cost is $1,500, but the average increase in income is $12,000, which signifies a great economic gain for those who make it. Mexican wages are volatile, and following Mexican currency crashes we have seen surges in illegal entry attempts. Income levels in Mexico have deteriorated relative to those in the United States. Coupled with low Mexican labor demand, this has caused illegal immigration numbers to surge.

Our policing efforts are currently concentrated in border cities, not U.S. work sites. Interior efforts are almost nonexistent due to a desire not to upset employers who depend on the low-skilled labor force illegal immigrants comprise. Our existing policy is to put up a big barrier at the border but, if migrants can get past it and get a job, to allow them to stay until they get caught. In determining an appropriate policy, we need to look at wage differentials, family networks, and expectations for the future.

L. Alan Winters
World Bank

Mexican immigration is localized and land-based. As the Mexican economy undergoes structural changes, there is a lot of pressure to leave agricultural land. Mexicans have thus become more mobile, moving to cities and then emigrating to the United States. There are, however, large frictions connected to migration, and the cost of being an illegal immigrant is worth thinking about.

The government is pretending to be firm, but it is not really trying to stop illegal immigration. There is a strong tradition of assimilation in America, but since we are not ready to legalize these people, by allowing them to fill the role of cheap labor we do not have to grant them citizenship and bear the associated costs.

Many immigrants take jobs below their skill level. This is mainly the case for Mexican immigrants; Indian immigrants tend to have jobs equal to their high skill level. Proximity to the United States is reducing the incentive for education in Mexico. If the United States wanted to stop illegal immigration, it probably could, but as of now it is making only gestures.
 
AEI intern Jenna Lally prepared this summary.

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AEI Participants

 

Steven J.
Davis
  • Steven J. Davis studies unemployment, job displacement, business dynamics, the effect of taxes on work activity, and other topics in economics. He is deputy dean for the faculty and professor of international business and economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and an economic adviser to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.  He previously taught at Brown University and MIT.  As a visiting scholar at AEI, Mr. Davis studies how policy-related sources of uncertainty affect national economic performance.

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