Thursday, October 25, 2007

Which do you prefer: More organized crime, drugs and violence, or more Mexican immigration?

Choices have consequences, would-be US border enforcers are learning, especially when we choose to focus our resources on the wrong problems.

According to a Wall Street Journal story ("Shift is afoot at the Mexican border," Oct. 25, A8), "A security crackdown on the Mexican border is believed to have reduced the number of people trying to cross illegally into the U.S. while increasing business for professional smugglers with ties to the drug trade." Reports WSJ:
With politicians deadlocked over how to deal with illegal immigration, trying to seal the border to catch and deter illegal immigrants has become the main policy tool.

But the crackdown also appears to be affecting the markets for smuggling people and drugs in Mexico. As tighter security makes crossing the border trickier and more hazardous, the traditional mom-and-pop operations in Mexico that used to ferry people across have been replaced by larger, more-professional criminal gangs, often with ties to the illegal-drug trade.

U.S. officials are reporting increased violence along the border, including gunfights between rival smuggling gangs, gangs hijacking each others' customers en route to U.S. destinations and the rape or assault of migrants.

Special Agent Alonzo Peña, chief investigator for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona, says as the border gets harder to cross, fees to smugglers have increased from next to nothing to as much as $6,000 a head, making the smuggling business an attractive new market for drug gangs.

"It's one of the unintended consequences of sealing the border," Mr. Peña says.

Border Patrol agents have noticed that smaller-scale smugglers on the Mexican side are being replaced by more-sophisticated ones who appear to have ties to Mexico's cocaine cartels. Smugglers are carrying higher-caliber weapons and sometimes dress in camouflage uniforms and use military tactics to evade capture.

Meanwhile, the reduction in illegal immigration doesn't necessarily stem from fewer immigrants coming to America, but fewer who routinely make the journey back and forth:
The higher risk of getting caught and higher cost of crossing has prompted many illegal workers in the U.S. to stay put rather than return home every year to do things like celebrate Christmas with their families. For those who still want to cross, the higher risk means putting their lives in the hands of more-organized criminal groups with the means to get them through.

So here we see the unintended but entirely predictable consequences of the "Secure the border first" strategy. It hasn't stopped illegal immigration - the big news is that the total number of estimated crossings is less than one million for the first time in several years, but that's still a lot of folks. Plus, much of the reduction in border crossings has been in back and forth traffic, not new arrivals, said the Journal. However, the policy's immeasurable social cost has been to enrich and empower Mexican organized crime, which has a firmer grip now on black market smuggling of humans AND drugs at the border than at any time in history, all thanks to the US crackdown.

The border crackdown, like many state and federal policies, seems designed to make drug cartels wealthier and more powerful instead of limiting their power.

IMO the cartels are a more grave danger to public safety and the economy than poor Mexican workers. Cartels bring with them widespread violence and corruption of legal institutions, while immigrants who come to work tend to commit fewer crimes than US citizens and don't endanger the public safety to nearly the same extent.

To his credit, President Bush has belatedly proposed to spend $1.4 billion over three years on a "Plan Mexico" to combat cartels, but as has often been the case during his presidency, he suffers from receiving extraordinarily poor advice. Plan Mexico from most accounts appears to be modeled after failed US drug strategies in South America and Afghanistan operated by corporate mercenaries. (I'll see if I can get more concrete details about how the money would be spent in the coming weeks.) If so, there are a lot more productive ways we could spend that money in Mexico to enhance security.

It's a completely false claim that it's possible to "secure the border first." The only workable solution is to fix US immigration laws first, to allow more Mexican workers to come and go. That would leave drug smugglers isolated and let border enforcement focus on the more dangerous adversary: the cancerous spread of powerful organized crime.

While it can be amusing to watch a child squeeze a long balloon and express shock when it bulges on the sides, it's frustrating bordering on infuriating to watch the US government play out that scenario as our national security policy on the southern border. When it comes to border security, the President should stop listening to the cops so much, and start listening to the economists. We've seen this movie before.


Anonymous said...

Are those my only two options?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yup, pretty much

Anonymous said...

The US and Mexican economies have benefited from the workers from Mexico and other South American Countries for a very long time.

The illegal nature of this benefit is unreasonable. In the past, we just looked the other way. That will no longer work. I agree, reasonable immegration laws are definately needed first.

Anonymous said...

Yup, pretty much

Dang. I was hoping for less of both.

Well, at least we're bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Anonymous said...

Some people may doubt the concept of evolution as far as living organisms go, but no one can doubt that a form of evolution has taken place amongst the organized crime cartels in Mexico with the latest efforts at securing the border; the pressures involved with the drug trade courtesy of drug prohibition have once again borne some bitter fruit, as the bad guys have just gotten badder. All thoroughly predictable...which makes it even more frustrating to see this 'Plan Mexico' being floated (and it's telling that the Administration is trying mightily to swat down any comparisons between it and 'Plan Colombia" thanks to the latter's lack of success after 7 years and 5 billion taxpayer's dollars). It perfectly fits Einstein's observation about how doing the same thing that provides the same result every day and hoping for a change when none is possible is insanity.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis. I would be extremely skeptical of the claim that border enforcement has led to a decrease in immigration. Mexican immigration is VERY sensitive to economic trends in the has construction job in California, knows his boss needs workers, calls Mexico and tells his brother and cousin to come on up. Job falls through, brother calls back and says don't bother.

Look at a graph of immigrants captured at the border and compare it to US economic growth - I bet they line up almost perfectly. Captures are down in 2007, but so is home construction, a MAJOR source of employment for Mexican labor. I would say this has more to do with the numbers being down than anything else.

Unknown said...

We have immigration "quotas". Isn't it ironic that Minbari radio talk show hosts rail about affirmative action that give a slight edge to some minority groups as "quotas" - but just can't find the voice when it comes to strictly limiting the number of immigrants from particular countries. We didn't have these quotas until the last century - when the immigrants stopped being overwhelmingly northern European and white.
They don't have quotas in Europe and they don't seem to have the crime problems that we have from immigrants. I wonder why?

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