Challenges to birthright citizenship are just a distraction.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 4 2010 1:08 PM

Babies 'R' Us

Challenges to birthright citizenship are just a distraction.

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Given our experience with recent politicized debates over health care and financial reform, as framed, the immigration proposals in the Senate and the House will invite only predictable criticism from the right and the left: Those in the immigrant rights camp will complain about proposals to increase enforcement through biometric cards, stepped-up ICE raids, and enhanced militarization of the border. Anti-immigrant forces will reject anything that suggests an amnesty for "law breakers," including a temporary guest worker program. But if serious consideration were to be given to a long-range economic strategy with Mexico, I believe conservatives and liberals alike would have reason to collaborate. Fewer Mexican workers would want or need to leave their country looking for work—making conservatives happy. And Mexican workers—the vast majority of whom would rather stay home—would have options, making liberals happy.

To truly understand undocumented migration, we have to do what Americans have thus far been unwilling to do: Look beyond the simple explanation that migrants cross the border in search of work. We have to ask why they cannot find what they want in Mexico. In 1994, we were told that NAFTA would solve the undocumented problem because new jobs would be created in Mexico. But NAFTA ultimately contributed to huge job losses in Mexico. Mexican corn farmers could not compete with heavily subsidized U.S. corn farmers, and now Mexico imports most of its corn from the United States. Because of globalization, 100,000 jobs in Mexico's domestic manufacturing sector were lost from 1993 to 2003. Where do those unemployed workers look for work? El Norte.

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A comparison with Europe is instructive here. When the European Union experienced pressure to expand its ranks to include poorer nations, the wealthier members worried. EU membership includes the right to open labor migration, and wealthy countries fretted that membership would bring a flood of poor workers across their borders. So beginning with the 1973 EU enlargement to include Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, the British insisted on an approach to aid poorer regions. When Greece (1981), then Portugal and Spain (1986), were added, all three nations as well as Ireland received infusions of capital and assistance with institutional planning. This approach worked. Their economies transformed, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain—all of which were emigrant-sending nations prior to EU membership—are now net immigrant-receiving nations. Today, only 2 percent of EU citizens look for work in other EU countries. One other useful lesson? The EU strategy of providing "adhesion" funds was forged by conservatives and liberals working together, rather than at cross purposes.

The anti-immigrant lobby has used the politics of fear to generate much of the hysteria over immigration today. They advance the specter of hordes of immigrants coming to take our jobs and commit crimes, while refusing to speak English. Of course the empirical data undercut those myths. Yet through fear and intimidation, comprehensive immigration reform has been stalled for years.

An economic turnaround in Mexico is central to solving the undocumented migration challenge in the United States. Conservatives should understand that. And liberals should recognize that reducing undocumented migration is in Mexico's interest as well; the persistent loss of able-bodied workers needed to build its infrastructure and economy only hurts Mexico. To be sure, investment in Mexico will not and, probably, should not be done without close monitoring. The EU enlargement policy sets standards for candidate countries. These criteria require a country that wishes to join the EU to meet certain political, social, and economic standards. We need a similar strategy in our own hemisphere. The longer we put this off, the worse the immigration crisis becomes.

Raising the issue of birthright citizenship—indeed the prospect of years of congressional hearings followed by years wasted attempting to amend the Constitution—doesn't do much beyond stirring up more hostility toward undocumented immigrants. Worse yet, it distracts us yet again from the meaningful discourse that might truly solve the problem. If key Republicans really want to launch a discussion about the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, then fine. What they will find is a group of young adults who are English speakers, good neighbors, and hard workers and who contribute importantly to the economy and to our society. In short, they will find Americans, who should be protected by the Constitution, not persecuted by it.

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Bill Ong Hing is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and author of Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization and Mexican Migration.