Ecoscience: The Immigration Debate in 1980

The immigration debate surrounding the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. illegally was as heated in 1980 as it is today. Noted ecologists Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich offered their own perspective in this essay.

061 ecoscience immigration debate - Fotolia

In the immigration debate one oft-proposed but completely impractical solution, according to Anne and Paul Ehrlich, is to close the U.S.-Mexican border. 


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Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who through their writing and research gave special meaning to the words "population," "resources," and "environment" in the late 1960's. (They also coined the term co-evolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us, for instance, have read Paul's book The Population Bomb) . . . far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present—on a regular basis—the following semi-technical column on the immigration debate by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.  

Immigration in the Future

In our last column, we described the growing alarm that many Americans feel over the ongoing "invasion" of this country by illegal immigrants . . . mostly from Mexico. During the mid-1970's, reports carried in the popular media claimed that as many as 12 million illegal aliens were residing in the United States, with thousands more pouring in daily. However, recent—and more carefully compiled—estimates have put the number of such unlawful residents at about four million . . . and indicate that the flow—the actual volume of which remains undetermined—is heavy in both directions.

Most illegals apparently come to this country for temporary work, sending the money to families left behind. They move back and forth across the border, working here and returning home frequently to see their kin. The underlying causes of the migration are the poverty and lack of jobs in Mexico (roughly half of that nation's work force is unemployed or grossly underemployed) and the availability of work at high pay (by Mexican standards) in the United States.

A Danger to Human Rights

People who are strongly opposed to Mexican immigration claim that illegals are taking jobs away from American workers and that they are a huge burden on our welfare system. But our studies, as well as those of other students of the problem, indicate that neither of these claims has much basis in fact. Still, although the nature and size of this unauthorized influx have been distorted and vastly overblown, a real problem does exist.

One central issue is that of human rights. People who come to this country illicitly are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Because they fear exposure, illegals can't protest when an employer fails to pay them or when someone robs or cheats them. They rarely apply for welfare or unemployment benefits—even though they have often earned them—for the same reason.

Furthermore, when they cross the border into the U.S., many migrants are preyed upon by border bandits. Robbery is almost usual . . . and rape and murder aren't rare. Not uncommonly, the very smuggler who was hired to bring the men and women into the U.S. will rob and abandon his charges.

What's more, when Mexican illegals are caught by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) either when crossing the border or while within this country, they're detained in substandard facilities, then sent back to Mexico after only the most rudimentary of proceedings. Until recently, the INS frequently conducted raids on firms suspected of hiring illegals and rounded up and sent to Mexico all employees who couldn't prove they were U.S. citizens or legal residents! Indeed, the INS has sweeping powers to detain and deport people, which—if abused—could pose a threat to many American citizens, as well as to illegal aliens. So far, for the most part, the INS has conducted itself with restraint . . . but if public hysteria pushes the agency into a witch hunt, the situation could change.

Power to the Powerless

In fact, the situation along our southern border is already changing. Some illegals are beginning to assert their rights before being returned to Mexico . . . by demanding proper deportation proceedings, for instance. It used to be almost unheard of for a captured alien to resist arrest, but now such struggles are no longer unusual. (There have even been gunfights between the Border Patrol officers and smugglers.)

Worse yet, the tightened surveillance—signaled by the erection of the highly publicized fence in the San Diego/Tijuana border area—has resulted in the diversion of migrant traffic to desert areas farther east . ... and some men and women don't survive the crossing. As a result of such tragedies, the U.s.-Mexican border has become an area often characterized by violence . . . and the possibility of a serious international incident occurring there is very real.

The changes in the border situation have led to a change in attitudes in Mexico, as well as in the U.S. Mexican people have, for years, deeply resented the gringos' penchant for exploiting Mexicans on both sides of the border: either in the form of U.S. companies which "invest" in Mexican factories in order to produce commodities for the American market with inexpensive Mexican labor, or in the form of other firms that employ low-cost Mexican labor (legal or illegal) in the U.S. Mexico is a relatively poor country alongside of a very rich one, but the nation is no longer powerless . . . and its government knows it: The land's newly discovered endowment of oil and natural gas alone gives its leaders great leverage . . . which is already being used in dealing with their wealthy and powerful northern neighbor.

Until recently, most Mexicans regarded the temporary northward migration of hundreds of thousands of workers as generally beneficial to their country, particularly since it helped relieve the nation's acute unemployment problem. As long as the workers seemed to be needed by American employers and were willing to go—and as long as the American public remained unconcerned—there seemed to be no reason for the Mexican government to worry. But now the migration has become a public issue in the U.S.... the Border Patrol has been urged to "crack down" . . . and there has even been federal legislation proposed that would outlaw the hiring of illegals.

California, in fact, already has such a law, but the legislation has been difficult to implement. The burden of enforcement doesn't fall (as it properly should) on the INS or the police, but is the responsibility of the employers . . . even though it's virtually impossible for them to determine whether a prospective employee is a citizen, an illegal, or a legally admitted alien entitled to a job here.

Clearly such laws, if enforced, would soon lead to discrimination against all Hispanics, unless some sort of forgery-proof work permit were issued by the government to everyone eligible to work in the United States. And many people—including ourselves—believe that requiring work permits for any Americans could be a first step toward repression.

Should We "Slam the Door?"

As a result of the growing fuss over this whole situation, the Mexican government is showing concern about the treatment of its citizens in the United States . . . as it did during the era of the braceros: farm laborers legally recruited for seasonal work in American fields. Mexican leaders are worried about the escalation of border violence, the exploitation of migrants, and the potential consequences of any serious attempt by the United States to "slam the door" in the face of Mexicans seeking work.

Such a radical "solution" to the immigration problem has actually been proposed, of course . . . but mainly by people far from the scene who haven't considered the logistic problems posed by any attempt to seal a nearly 2,000 mile border. The effort would be doomed to failure, and—at the very least—it would undoubtedly result in an escalation of violence. A closed border would also encourage illegals to bring their families and stay longer, since reentry into Mexico would be more difficult and hazardous than it now is.

Then, too, slamming the door would likely lead to a great increase in violations of the civil rights of U.S. citizens (especially those of Mexican descent), as well as the rights of legal immigrants near the border or anywhere that illegals might be found . . . which is now almost everywhere. (A recent report indicated an influx of Mexican illegals in New York and Boston. Such immigrants go where the jobs are . . . and employers like them because they're willing to work long, hard hours for low pay and few benefits in jobs that most Americans—even those who are chronically unemployed—shun.)

Sealing the border is clearly not a sensible solution. The illegal migration can only be dealt with successfully by attacking its roots. Thus, much of the problem must be solved in Mexico. If that land's poverty were reduced and its people were able to make a living at home, they wouldn't go to a strange country (where they're generally treated badly) to earn enough to keep their families alive. And if the population explosion in Mexico could be curbed, the growth in the work force in coming decades would not completely swamp the rate of job creation.

At the Root of Things

The Mexican government is aware of its necessary role in easing the migration problem. In the last few years, Mexico has established one of the world's strongest family planning programs.

However, eradicating poverty in any rapidly growing, less-developed country has proven to be an extremely thorny problem . . . and Mexico is no exception. That nation's leaders hope that their land's new-found oil wealth will help bail them out. Of course, whether the supply of "black gold" will really help solve the problems or will only exacerbate the rich/poor division within the country remains to be seen . . . but the opportunity for economic improvement does exist, and so does the Mexican government's desire to end the nation's underemployment and poverty.

Still, some of the problem's roots lie north of the border, too . . . principally in the lure of available jobs for migrants. What, then, should the United States do? Keeping the illegals out—an all but impossible and enormously costly task—would cause economic problems in the U.S. (by removing workers from their jobs with no replacements available under the existing conditions of those jobs) . . . offend Mexico . . . erode our civil rights . . . and be inhumane to boot. Thus, it seems to us that the best approach would be to legalize the migrants in some way . . . and thereby achieve some degree of regulation and control over who's here and what they're doing. This approach would, in addition, make it easier to eliminate the worst abuses and exploitation.

Earlier this year, Senator S.I. Hayakawa of California came up with a proposal for legalization that strikes us as one of the most practical so far. He suggested that each migrant deposit $250 (which is less than the going price for being smuggled into the U.S.) with the Mexican government, to be held in interest-bearing bonds. In exchange, the migrant would be issued a travel document entitling him or her to a six-month visa. The deposit would be returned only if reclaimed within the six-month period, and the worker would then be eligible for another visa the following year.

A system of this sort would be beneficial to both countries. It would offer temporary employment to Mexicans, thus relieving their nation's unemployment pressures while—at the same time—encouraging the return of many laborers who would have acquired the kind of skills needed in a developing country. It would not encourage workers to stay in the U.S. and bring their families, as—ironically—closing the border would do. It would provide American employers with the low-cost, hard-working labor they want . . . and help prevent the abuse of those workers. It would also avoid the need for the police-state enforcement of immigration laws. And, by satisfying needs on both sides of the border, the plan would help improve relations between the United States and Mexico.

A Humane Policy

While Hayakawa's proposed system would solve many aspects of the illegal immigrant problem, the plan still wouldn't necessarily decrease the contribution of immigration to population growth in the United States. Even if most of the Mexican workers were legally admitted only on a temporary basis, some proportion would come to stay, regardless of the law.

Meanwhile, many Americans are purposely having small families out of the wish to end U.S. population growth and thus ensure a brighter future for their children. Who can blame such men and women for wanting to close the border if they see our land's population still growing because of a high rate of immigration?

There are two important prerequisites to the establishment of a sensible and humane national immigration policy. The first is to gather dependable statistics on both the inflow and the outflow of aliens. The second, of course, is to establish an explicit national population policy . . . of which immigration must be an important component.

In a finite world, one can no more reasonably plan a nation to accommodate an ever-growing number of citizens than one can design an airplane to handle an ever-growing passenger list. It's crucial that this country not only end its population growth as soon as possible, but that it then institute a gradual decline toward a population size that can be maintained permanently at a high standard of living. For this goal to be achieved, the birth rate must be established slightly below the death rate . . . but just how far below will depend on the level of net immigration (the number of immigrants minus emigrants) that a national consensus deems desirable.

It seems unlikely that there would be a consensus in favor of total cessation of immigration. Most Americans apparently agree that some categories of immigrants must be admitted: for example, close relatives of people already resident or naturalized, and refugees from oppression . . . especially those who've become refugees as a result of American foreign policy. Emigration of Americans to other lands, of course, would balance at least some of such admissions.

One of the toughest and most persistent problems that we'll face in the future will be the pressure for entry into rich countries from citizens of poor countries who are simply seeking a chance for a better life . . . a dilemma that the United States already shares with other industrialized nations around the world.

A problem as complex as this one, however, cannot be solved with simple measures or police action. It will persist in some form as long as great differences in wealth and opportunity exist between nations like Mexico and the United States, and as long as population growth hinders the poor countries' efforts to develop. But until such inequities can be reduced, Americans can try to deal with the situation wisely and humanely . . . rather than reacting to the migration phenomenon with fear and hostility.

A detailed discussion of the movements of people between nations-with special emphasis on Mexican-American relations-can be found in The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico and the United States by Paul R. Ehrlich, Loy Silver-back, and Anne H. Ehrlich (Ballantine, 1979).