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Immigration reform too late to fix one big problem, studies say

Immigration reform aims to fix a migrant worker system that all sides say is broken. But demographic and economic trends in Mexico mean the era of cheap migrant labor flooding American fields is nearing an end, two studies say.

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But groups against immigration say the studies show the need to focus on other ways of getting US food harvested.

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“American agriculture’s reliance on low-wage foreign labor has impeded capital investment in technology that would have made it more efficient and competitive,” says Ira Mehlman, national spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. “There are machines that can do many agricultural jobs much more efficiently and more cost effectively. Our government should have policies in place that incentivize that sort of capital investment in efficiency, not policies that perpetuate exploitative inefficiency.”

More broadly, the research helps clarify the questions Congress ought to be asking, many say.

"This … raises a series of questions for policymakers and those in the agricultural industry,” says Catherine Wilson, an immigration specialist at Villanova University. “First, given the increasing trend of Mexicans moving into nonagricultural occupations, how can the US secure a steady and reliable flow of workers in the agricultural industry? And second, does comprehensive immigration reform legislation provide a time-sensitive and effective response to this phenomenon?"

The answers to those questions could push the US toward working with illegal immigrants already in the country, some say.

“The boom in Mexican immigration is over. Mexico's rural sector is declining, labor force growth is decelerating, Mexico is becoming an aging society, its middle class is expanding, and incomes are rising,” says Douglas Massey, a sociologist at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The critical need at this point is some kind of legalization for those already here.”

Others caution against making too much of the research right away, suggesting that the Mexican developments need to be seen in the larger context of events in the region.

“Things are changing in Mexico in ways that will fundamentally change the migration patterns that have been in place for over a century, but that doesn't mean things will end overnight,” says Lisa García Bedolla, chairwoman of the Center for Latino Policy Research at the University of California, Berkeley.

After all, what is happening economically and politically in Mexico is somewhat the opposite of what’s happening in other parts of Central America, she says. So while the numbers of Mexican workers may decline, numbers of workers from other Central American countries might not.

According to Pew research, 57 percent of illegal immigrants already in America are Mexican.

In the end, what the study does show is that border enforcement is much less effective in controlling illegal immigration than economic conditions abroad, says Bill Ong Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

The bipartisan bill in the Senate allocates an additional $6.5 billion for border enforcement. “Those funds would be spent so much more wisely and effectively on helping Mexico with its economy,” says Professor Hing. “The notion of a strong border may sound appealing, but a strong Mexican economy is the real way to reduce economic migration.”

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