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.
So here's the funny part. As my colleague Rich Lowry has noted, liberals and Democrats tend to oppose free trade agreements, most recently the Central America Free Trade Agreement, on the grounds that they "export American jobs" to underpaid Latin American workers. But the same people generally favor importing underpaid Latin American workers into the United States to take many of the same jobs. One hand giveth, the other taketh away. The cynicism in all of this is fairly breathtaking. It seems that what many liberals prefer is not preserving American jobs or bringing more undocumented workers, but importing undocumented Democrats.
America doesn't have a single immigration problem, it has several immigration problems of varying levels of urgency. One of them is the challenge that comes from sharing a 2,000-mile-long border with a very poor country to our south. Canadians aren't pouring over the far less secure northern border to live in America, because Canada - its numerous shortcomings notwithstanding - is a prosperous country. Many, if not most, of the immigrants who come from Canada - or from Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia - are ideal. They are highly skilled and motivated to benefit from, and contribute to, a modern economy. Mexican immigrants are plenty motivated, but they come up short on the skills part. If Mexico were as rich as Canada, the Mexicans would be the ones freaking out about their porous southern border as Guatemalans tried to "steal jobs Mexicans won't do."
For all the talk about coming up with "comprehensive" immigration reform, the root causes of the supply are left out of the debate about immigrant supply and demand. If we're going to be "comprehensive," why not tie a fixed but significant level of legal Mexican immigration to greater free-market and anti-corruption reforms at home. Mexico's government feels increasingly free to lecture us about our domestic and economic priorities; it seems only fitting for us to take a more active interest in theirs as well.