Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/sat/31011editconsequences.html

Punishing immigrants
October 11, 2003


The Wall Street Journal Friday reported an immigration story that clearly illustrates the law of unintended consequences. With the great buildup of Border Patrol resources mandated by the the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the flow of illegal immigration was plugged first along the California-Mexico border and then in Texas.

The result of increased enforcement was that immigrants resorted to crossing the Arizona border. The desert has claimed hundreds of immigrant lives.

The Journal story by Eduardo Porter points out two other consequences of this increased enforcement policy. First, the price of crossing surged. Smugglers charge as much as $1,800 a head. Second, because of the desert peril and increased prices, illegal immigrants who previously would return home to Mexico after seasonal work in the states today remain in the north.

Porter told the story of Cristobal Silverio, a farmworker from a small Mexican village who illegally immigrated to Stockton, Calif., where he works in the fields. He came to the United States six years ago. He intended to stay a couple of years and save enough to return home and build a house. In 1997, just before increased enforcement began, Silverio paid $400 to a smuggler to cross.

Silverio no longer returns to Mexico except for the trips to fetch his wife and children. Thus, two of Silverio's children have been born in the United States. One was born prematurely and had to spend months in a hospital incubator, running up a medical bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Silverio could not and did not pay that bill.

Douglas Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Journal that in the early 1980s, the average stay of an undocumented Mexican worker was three years. By the late 1990s, it climbed to nine years, he said.

Because two of Silverio's children are Americans, the family receives more than $950 a month in welfare payments. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Georgia Republican, is sponsoring a bill that denies citizenship rights to the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. Deal's northern Georgia district has attracted thousands of Latino immigrants. In fact, his district has four times more Hispanics than blacks. These illegal immigrants work in the carpet mills at Dalton and a chicken processing operation in Gainesville.

There's some irony in Deal's bill, which seeks to punish illegal immigrants for having children. Dalton's carpet industry would completely shut down if the town's illegal immigrant community disappeared.

But then irony pervades U.S. immigration policy, which in concentrating on keeping immigrants out of the country also keeps them in.