Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Out of the Sand!
America's Failed Immigration Policy

By David G. Young

San Diego, July 22, 2003 --  

The blaring lights aimed at Interstate 15 from the side of the road here are so powerful that they illuminate entire mountainsides. But this effort to locate immigrants heading north from the Mexican border fails to see inside the thousands of windowless delivery vans that drive by daily -- many of which are undoubtedly packed with Mexican and Central American nationals -- thus making the entire effort futile.

But futility is business as usual for the Border Patrol -- a newly absorbed component of the bureau of Customs and Border Protection. The merger with customs is just one part a larger set of changes. Both groups have been superficially repackaged with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Services or BICS) as parts of the Homeland Security department. Blessed with new names and new anti-terrorist missions, America's immigration enforcement agencies are sticking their heads ever deeper into the sand hiding their failure.

After hopeful signs during the early days of the Bush administration, all near-term hopes of reforming America's immigration policies have been lost. Mexico's President Vicente Fox has been handed a defeat in congressional elections, party due to his total failure to obtain changes in the way his people go to and from the United States. His foreign minister, Jorge Castenada, resigned in frustration at the beginning of the year.1

Ironically, tightened controls at the border are probably increasing the population of what are derisively called "illegal" immigrants. Undocumented immigrants still find a way in, and then get stuck inside the United States -- unable to return home for fear of being caught when seasonal work ends or when family holidays arrive on the calendar.

Meanwhile, people who are legally entitled to come to the United States remain stranded at the border. Onerous post-September 11 visa restrictions have devastated tourist industries in places like New York, and kept dissidents mired in oppression. There were nine million fewer legal arrivals to the United States in 2002 than in the year before the attacks.2

In Cuba, after a spring crackdown by the Castro dictatorship, migrants trying to flee the communist holdout surged toward Florida. But of the 20,000 annual migration visas allowed to Cubans each year by American law, only about 10 percent have been processed in the past nine months.3 The rest remain in a backlog inspired by terrorist paranoia. Ironically, those who migrate outside the law by making a dangerous trip across the Florida Strait are rewarded with easy asylum.

Americans who oppose immigration and support keeping insanely restrictive laws in place are free to believe as they choose. But they should not be fooled into thinking that it is stopping immigration from happening. The only practical effect of tighter immigration laws is to push migrants from legal passage into the shady world of illegal immigration.

Simply put, efforts to limit immigration with the law have been a failure. Many towns in central California are now entirely Spanish-speaking. The underground economy in Southern California -- powered by undocumented immigrants -- is estimated to be 20 percent of the official economy.4 For the country as a whole, the figure is 10 percent.5 This is a huge sector of America that is not going away. Americans who want to turn the clock back to the 1950s have their heads in the sand as much as America's immigration enforcement agencies. The populist desire for a major crackdown on the Mexican border will never happen -- Latinos now form the largest minority group in America, and the major parties are battling for their support.

Given this political reality, the real path for reform lies with a relaxation of controls. But changing the law to acknowledge practical and political realities means the Bush administration will have to abandon its obsession with meaningless security measures. Given this prevailing terrorist paranoia, the administration undoubtedly finds the sand a very comfortable place for its head to be.

Related Web Columns:

Crossing Borders With Uncrossed T's, April 2, 2002

Constitutional Rights: DENIED, December 11, 2001

Profoundly Evil
The Deadly Face Modern Migration
, June 27, 2000

Lessons of the Conquistadors, April 4, 2000

Constitutional Apartheid
America's New Political Underclass
, March 9, 1999


1. Washington Post, After Setbacks, Mexico's Foreign Minister Offers Resignation, January 9, 2003

2. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, International Arrivals to U.S. - Historical Visitation 1995-2002r, April 2003

3. Los Angeles Times, Cuba Finds Crackdown on Dissent Has a Price, July 20, 2003

4. Los Angeles Times Magazine, Undermining American Workers, July 20, 2003

5. Ibid.