A story in The New York Times yesterday discussed how immigration from Mexico to the United States has actually fallen to the lowest level since the 1950s. Someone, somewhere, is surprised about why:
The extraordinary Mexican migration that delivered millions of illegal immigrants to the United States over the past 30 years has sputtered to a trickle, and research points to a surprising cause: unheralded changes in Mexico that have made staying home more attractive.
This might be surprising to those who fail to really think about immigration, but it should otherwise hardly be news to anyone else. When conditions in your home are better than conditions abroad, you want to stay home. The real food for thought in this piece should be, hey! What's so screwed up about the United States right now that fewer people want to come and live here? Instead, the news hook seems to be the same old charge: there's all this "trouble" with immigration.
I want to say this up front: There is a gigantic difference between saying the United States has an immigration problem (we do) and the United States has an immigrant problem. The first implies a breakdown in the system -- which is undeniable, when it takes years or decades for people to receive visas. The second implies that there is some evil being perpetrated upon the United States by those that cross a border to get here -- and this has been proven false again and again [PDF].
With that as a backdrop, then, is it preferable that fewer Mexican citizens make their way to the United States each year? No. Is it preferable that our southern neighbor is a better place to live for its citizens? Absolutely!
Now, there are two schools of thought about how best to make Mexico seem more inviting than the United States for its citizens. The first school relies upon making the U.S. seem less than welcoming; the second relies upon, you know, actually making things better in Mexico.
Well, why not make Mexico a better place to live? Yes, there are many sticky and icky nation-building/arrogant First World Foreva places one could go with that thought, but there's also the path of least resistance and most profit: the path of making certain that the world's richest democracy sometimes extends a hand of friendship instead of a shove to its southern neighbor.
Please, let us take a moment to consider what the world would look like if half the energy that was poured in to creating, defending, and enforcing the anti-immigration laws in Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas had instead been put toward, say, encouraging a better U.S.-Mexican friendship.
What constitutes friendship? Easier access, perhaps, to visas for Mexican scholars who want to pursue higher education -- or who want to become educators. One of the things that's convincing Mexican residents to stay in Mexico is the availability of better schools for their children:
Still, education represents the most meaningful change. The census shows that throughout Jalisco, the number of senior high schools or preparatory schools for students aged 15 to 18 increased to 724 in 2009, from 360 in 2000, far outpacing population growth.
But wait, there's more:
Though Mexicans with Ph.D.’s tend to leave for bigger paychecks abroad, “if you have a college degree you’re much more likely to stay in Mexico because that is surely more valuable in Mexico,” said Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center.
(You know what warms the cockles of my immigration-loving, college-teacher heart? The image of freshly-minted American college graduates sneaking across the Mexican border, looking for a place that still values the bachelor's degree.)
I'd love to see the immigration debate become fact-based instead of emotion-based, and articles like this do give me hope. Neither statistics nor experience demonstrate that increased immigration from Mexico is a bad thing for the United States. What I'm afraid of, though, is that any decrease in immigration will be seen through the lens of "solving a problem," and that it will give further fuel to those who would make certain the argument for expanded immigration limits is an argument based in bigotry.