THE BLOG
11/09/2010 12:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Economic Security or Border Security: Immigration and the New Congress

This week, government and civil society representatives from around the world will gather at the IV Global Forum on Migration and Development in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to discuss the factors that lead people to emigrate and leave behind their families, homes and roots. Increasingly, advocates worldwide are pushing governments to recognize that in order to address migration issues, it is essential to confront the underlying causes that push people to seek better opportunities abroad. More often than not, people are forced to leave their countries because of unemployment and economic insecurity in their communities. You would think this would resonate with the incoming Republicans to Congress whose rallying cry on the campaign trail was for more jobs. But will it?

The Republicans' Pledge to America indicates a greater focus on border security and immigration law enforcement. In addition, it indirectly calls for supporting legislation such as Arizona's infamous SB 1070 with its call to "reaffirm the authority of state and local law enforcement to assist in the enforcement of all federal immigration laws." Equally ominous is the letter sent by all seven Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee, just days before the mid-term elections, to the Department of Homeland Security asking how much money it needs to deport every illegal immigrant. Fortunately, the price tag for such a massive deportation goes far beyond what Republicans, who also called for reduced government spending, would be willing to pay.

Unfortunately, most Republicans and Democrats alike only view immigration as a domestic issue. In one sense, they are right. Undocumented immigrants contribute to government coffers at the state and federal levels through paying taxes on income, payroll, and sales taxes while receiving little of the benefits. In addition, undocumented immigrants are an important source of cheap labor for many U.S. industries including agriculture, construction, landscaping, poultry processing, and building maintenance.

But immigration is not just a domestic issue, it also an international development one. People make the difficult decision to migrate to the United States because of the lack of employment and the absence of long-term public policies to address poverty in their home countries. If these root causes are not addressed, migrants will keep crossing the boarder no matter how many troops are sent or fences built.

Taking the journey north is a difficult decision. Most migrants are very aware of the risks involved: for Latin Americans it may mean crossing the unforgiving Arizona desert and being at risk of kidnapping, beatings and even death, particularly for those who travel through Mexico on their way to the US. The kidnapping and massacre of 72 migrants in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas last August is a horrific example of the daily abuses suffered by migrants in transit. But migrants continue to leave their countries because the alternative -- to stay -- is not really an option for them if they are to provide for their families.

For the governments in Latin America, outward migration is an escape valve that eases social tensions caused by lack of employment. At the same time, remittances sent by migrants living in the U.S. are a significant source of income, contributing to the fiscal health of the citizens as well as the governments in the region.

The passing of any immigration reform bill seems unlikely in the current political scenario. So, what can the Democrat controlled Senate and a Republican controlled House of Representatives do? Like the Global Forum on Migration and Development, the U.S. Congress should recognize that migration and development are issues that are intricately intertwined. Congress should support development projects that create jobs in Latin America. Where to get the money in this pay-as-you go climate? One option is to take it from money designated for U.S. military assistance to the region. In other words, money for jobs, not guns. This will be a more efficient use of foreign aid, and it would stem the flow of migration to the United States.

This Congress would be wise to consider the fact that unless the countries in the region are able to achieve higher and more equitable levels of development, we will be having another discussion 10 or 20 years down the road about immigration reform, but for a new wave of migrants.