Immigration Policy Under Spotlight

January 22, 1998

The plight of poor and low-skilled immigrants -- especially migrant workers who cross the US-Mexico border to perform seasonal work on California farms -- is the focus of two articles on immigration policy in the latest issue of Population and Development Review. The articles demonstrate how aspects of the new welfare and immigration reform acts may reduce levels of legal immigration and at the same time expand incentives for illegal immigrants to settle in the U.S. Increased border patrols and other enforcement efforts are unlikely to deter workers from Mexico, who view work in the US -- however low-paid -- as more promising than the limited opportunities in their home country.

Reform May Lead to Unintended Consequence: Increase in Illegal Immigration

The combined effects of the 1996 immigration and welfare reform acts are likely to produce unintended, possibly undesirable, consequences, note policy analysts Thomas J. Espenshade, Jessica L. Baraka, and Gregory A. Huber. While the 1996 Immigration Reform Act is designed to discourage illegal immigration by guarding US borders more diligently and encouraging or requiring illegal residents to depart, Espenshade and his colleagues suggest the law's measures may have the opposite effect, especially when combined with the Welfare Reform Act, which imposes new limits on alien access to welfare payments and other social services.

"The acts reflect Congressional failure to consider how individuals and institutions are likely to react in the face of new policies," the authors say. Legal immigration levels are likely to be reduced by a combination of demand and supply factors. Potential immigrants who might have been attracted to the United States, believing that a generous welfare system would be available to help them in time of financial need, will now find that the economic benefits associated with US immigration are lowered.

Poorer, older, and less-skilled migrants who are unable to demonstrate that they will not become a public charge and who need a financial sponsor before they can legally migrate to the US will find that sponsors are harder to locate. However, some potential legal immigrants who find their path blocked by the act's requirement will now seek ways to enter the US illegally, the authors say.

The immigration act also authorizes more funding for enforcement at the border and interior, but Espenshade and colleagues suggest that immigrants will simply alter their customary routes of entry and continue to enter illegally. "Higher apprehension probabilities are but a momentary nuisance to many illegal immigrants, who keep trying to evade the US Border Patrol until they are successful at entering the US," the authors note.

More secure identification documents and employment verification are likely go much farther in reducing illegal immigration than will increased border enforcement, the authors contend, noting that in the past Congress has been reluctant to tighten employment eligibility criteria on the grounds that it imposes too great an administrative burden on businesses. "If the goal of lawmakers is to deter illegal migration, overcoming obstacles to worksite enforcement may be the single biggest challenge," the authors conclude.

California Farm Employment Creates Vicious Circle of Rural Poverty

Farm employment in rural California -- with its reliance on immigrant or migrant workers -- leads to rural poverty, say researchers who analyzed 1990 census data on immigration, poverty, and welfare use in 65 rural California towns in San Joaquin valley, an area with one of the highest degrees of poverty among immigrants in the US.

In an article in the latest issue of Population and Development Review titled, "Immigrant Subsidy in US Agriculture," economists J. Edward Taylor and Philip L. Martin describe a vicious circle: Flat or declining real wages resulting from a highly elastic supply of immigrant labor create an incentive for farmers to expand production of labor-intensive specialty crops for U.S. and foreign consumers. Increased production, in turn, stimulates immigration. The immigrants no longer live on farms; they settle into poverty-ridden farmworker communities, while the farm owners live in prosperous towns, creating a patchwork of poverty and prosperity.

According to Taylor and Martin, the immigrants are the last to benefit from their employment. "The income generated by immigrant expenditures may accrue not to the capital-poor immigrants, but instead to those with the physical and human capital necessary to meet farmworker service demands. These include labor contractors and foreman who can provide jobs for immigrants; local residents with vans who provide transportation services; local residents with rooms to rent to seasonal workers; and food, check cashing, and other service providers," note Taylor and Martin.

The subsidy they describe occurs when the taxes farmworkers pay fail to meet the cost of their public service needs. "The expansion of farm employment generates an external cost that must be born by society as a whole in the form of increased welfare services," Taylor and Martin explain.

The authors suggest three broad policy options for breaking the farm employment-immigration-poverty-welfare cycle. The first option is to reduce the supply of immigrant labor by stepping up border and interior enforcement, but neither the presumably greater risk of being apprehended nor higher smuggling fees paid by immigrants had, as of late 1997, deterred enough entrants to produce credible complaints of farm labor shortages or evidence of rising wages.

The second option would be to promote economic development in migrant-supplying areas, particularly in Mexico, in an effort to reduce the supply of immigrant labor. However, there is general agreement that events in Mexico in the 1990s, especially since the December 1994 peso devaluation, are encouraging rural Mexicans to "go north" in search of opportunity.

The third option would be to develop policies to internalize the social costs of labor-intensive agriculture; that is, make US farmers and consumers responsible for more of the costs associated with seasonal farmwork. However, in a labor-surplus environment, such as the one characterizing US agriculture in the 1980s and 1990s, policies to internalize the social costs of low-wage agriculture would be difficult to implement, the authors conclude.

Thomas J. Espenshade is Professor of Sociology and Faculty Associate, Office of Population Research, Princeton University; Jessica L. Baraka is a doctoral candidate, Department of Economics, Princeton University; Gregory A. Huber is a doctoral candidate, Politics Department, Princeton University.

J. Edward Taylor and Philip L. Martin are Professors of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis


Population and Development Review, Vol. 23 No. 4, December 1997, also includes Notes and Commentary, Archives, Book Reviews, and Documents

For subscription information call 212/339-0514 or fax 212/755-6052. For further information, contact Christina Horzepa, 212/339-0520, or Sandra Waldman, 212/339-0525.

The Population Council is an international, nonprofit, nongovernmental institution that seeks to improve the wellbeing and reproductive health of current and future generations around the world and to help achieve a humane, equitable, and sustainable balance between people and resources. The Council conducts biomedical, social science, and public health research and helps build research capacities in developing countries. Established in 1952, the Council is governed by an international board of trustees. Its New York headquarters supports a global network of regional and country offices.
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