You want to solve the illegal immigration problem? Well, here's the answer: Make Mexico rich.
A rich Mexico would not export poor, unskilled workers to the United States for two simple reasons: It wouldn't have a surplus of them, and it would need what few it had for its own economy. Moreover, research and common sense alike tell us that most people don't want to leave their homes, families and communities in pursuit of work in a foreign country if they can find similar work at home.
Of course, there's an obvious problem here that reminds me of Steve Martin's old routine about his foolproof two-step plan to make a million dollars tax-free. His first step? "Find a million dollars."
"Make Mexico rich" is also easier said than done.
But it isn't any less true simply because it's hard. A Mexico with a per capita income somewhere even close to America's would stop sending its poorest workers abroad, largely because those workers wouldn't want to leave.
The Mexican economy, which does better than you might think, creates about a half-million jobs a year. That's not too shabby. The problem is that about a million young people enter the work force every year. A big chunk of that surplus labor heads north for the border, as do many of the workers who yearn to make more than the Mexican minimum wage of $4.50 (U.S.) per day.
So, how do you make the Mexicans rich? One method, preferred by many in the Mexican government, is to export your poor laborers to America, where they can then send billions of dollars back to Mexico in the form of cash remittances to loved ones, while at the same time alleviating the strain on your welfare state. Needless to say, this has not been a zippy process. Another route might be foreign aid. But foreign aid, it turns out, is next to useless for modernizing an economy. It seems that foreign economic planners and domestic economic planners have a knack for hashing out plans to build useless white elephants.
There is a third route: trade. Free trade has been proven, time and again, as a reliable path to economic development. It pushes the public and private sectors alike toward greater accountability and transparency. It lifts people out of poverty, and while it can force unsettling changes on a society, those changes prove to be worthwhile in a very short time.