The Border Closes

The border closes

Dec 18th 2008 | LOS ANGELES
From The Economist print edition

Tougher enforcement and the recession have cut the flow of immigrants; but the state of the economy has made it harder to overhaul a broken system

UNTIL recently, most of the people who came to Emilio Amaya's office in San Bernardino were working illegally. Now the flow of immigrants has slowed, and those who used to toil on building sites and in restaurant kitchens are taking long breaks to visit their relatives. Fortunately, a new line of business has emerged. Mr Amaya is helping people fill in forms that will enable them to move their possessions back to Mexico.

It is an abrupt reversal of a once seemingly inexorable trend. Ever since 2002, when America began to recover from a mild economic downturn, migrants both legal and illegal have streamed over the border. By 2006 Americans rated immigration as the nation's second-most-important problem after the Iraq war, according to Gallup. A bold attempt to reform immigration laws the following year was scuppered by an extraordinary outburst of popular anger. Yet, almost at that moment, the problem began to go away.

The least desirable kind of immigrant has declined the most steeply. In the year to September 2008 724,000 fewer people were caught trying to cross into America from Mexico, the lowest annual tally since the 1970s (see chart). Border cops have naturally claimed credit for the drop. But the heavy hand of the law is probably much less of a deterrent than the invisible hand of the market.

Illegal immigrants often work as builders and landscapers, two trades that have collapsed along with the housing market. As the most casual workers in any industry, they are often laid off first. Although it is impossible to say how many are out of work, one clue comes from their closest competitors in the labour market. In the past year the unemployment rate among Hispanic Americans has risen from 5.7% to 8.6%. That is a steeper increase than for whites or blacks.

In some places, such as Arizona, tough penalties for companies that hire illegals have made the situation worse. Edmundo Hidalgo, who runs a Hispanic organisation in Phoenix, says employers who are prepared to wink at illegality in a tight labour market become more scrupulous when there are lots of workers to choose from. Not surprisingly, the Arizona border is particularly quiet these days. “Why risk your life to come and be unemployed?” asks Wes Gullett, who steered John McCain's presidential campaign in Arizona.

Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Centre, estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in America fell by 500,000 between 2007 and 2008. Some left the country; others worked their way to legitimacy. Few were replaced. For the past three years, Mr Passel reckons, there has been more legal than illegal immigration-a reversal of the previous pattern. And even legal immigration may now be falling.

Gabriel Jack, a Silicon Valley immigration lawyer, says companies are requesting fewer visas for foreign workers, although demand for the most popular permits still outstrips supply. Tourism and business travel seem to have declined, too. Fewer people are flying into and out of America than at this point last year, according to the International Air Transport Association. All of this changes the politics of immigration.

Tricky politics
During the presidential campaign Mr Obama promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year in office. He has a sound reason for keeping that promise: Latinos are solidly Democratic. Exit polls for CNN suggest that Mr Obama carried Hispanic voters by 28 points in Texas, 51 points in California and 54 points in Nevada. By 2012 the Hispanic electorate will be bigger and the heavily Latino Western states will command a few more electoral-college votes, thanks to the 2010 census, which will give extra congressional seats to the West.

The abrupt slowdown in human movement might seem to improve the odds that America's broken immigration system will be overhauled soon. What do nativists have to fear, if fewer people are trampling the border and some undocumented workers are going home? In fact, though, immigration reform is becoming harder.

The immigration bill that died in 2007 would have legalised undocumented workers, stepped up enforcement of existing laws and increased the supply of immigrant workers. It was a compromise that offered something to liberals, Hispanics, conservatives and businessmen.

The recession has swept away the third part of the grand bargain. Even 18 months ago some Midwestern Democrats (including Mr Obama) were wary of a guest-worker programme. It will be extremely hard to sell an increase in foreign workers during a recession. Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington notes that the last two major relaxations of immigration laws, in 1965 and 1990, both occurred at times of low unemployment.

If there is to be no grand bargain, lesser steps may be taken. Farmers, who have political clout and a perpetual hunger for cheap labour, may be allowed to hire more seasonal workers. “Americans still aren't rushing to pick lettuces in 115 heat,” notes Glenn Hamer, president of Arizona's chamber of commerce. The DREAM Act, which would enable some illegal aliens who were brought to America as children to become residents, may be revived.

But if no provision is made to increase the supply of foreign labour permanently, the immigration issue will come back once business picks up again. As Tamar Jacoby of ImmigrationWorks USA, a pressure group, puts it, efforts to secure the border and to police unscrupulous employers will have to compete against the dynamism of the world economy. Don't count on the cops to win