Truth and Consequences: America’s best immigration policy is a prosperous Mexico

I’ve always admired Condoleezza Rice. I first met the former National Security Advisor and later U.S. Secretary of State during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games when she attended the opening ceremony. A year later, in Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to visit with her at the White House. And while I admire her grace and stature, what I prize most is her well-informed insights.

I have a vivid memory of an interview she gave on the topic of illegal immigration. She explained to the reporter that the best way to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Mexico was to foster a healthy, growing and strong Mexican economy. This sensible comment struck a chord with me. We can talk about deportations, walls, the war on drugs, visa reform and import taxes, but what we really need is a prosperous Mexico.

Challenge of half-truths

With this insight in mind, I’d like to highlight two public policy principles that relate to U.S.-Mexico relations. The first is the challenge of half-truths. A half-truth is a partly true, partly deceptive statement. When a person tells a half-truth, they deliberately fail to convey the whole story.

The policy thinking behind what has been called “a great, great wall” is a classic half-truth. It creates the visual that building a wall will stop the flow of undocumented people entering our country from the southern border. This is a complex topic, but one factoid sheds light on the half-truth about a wall. An estimated 45 percent of the people who enter the United States illegally enter the country legally and overstay their visas. (See “Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population,” May 22, 2006, Pew Research Center.) An honest policy discussion must include more comprehensive remedies.

Law of unintended consequences

The second principle is the law of unintended consequences. Every action has unanticipated results. The challenge for decision makers is to consider the second-, third-, and fourth-round impacts of their decisions. There’s a colorful story about a “cat drop” that explains this law.

In the 1950s, the Indonesian Island of Borneo had a problem with malaria. Government officials consulted with the World Health Organization and were encouraged to spray generous amounts of DDT over the island to kill off mosquitos that spread the disease. The intervention reduced the spread of malaria, but caused other second- and third-round consequences.

First, the thatched roofs on their homes began to collapse because the DDT also killed a species of wasps. The wasps fed upon larvae that lived in the thatched roofs over their homes. Without the wasps, the larvae multiplied, ate the thatch and caused the roofs to fall.

There were other side effects as well. The island’s many gecko lizards ate insects filled with DDT and became sick. Then, cats on the island ate more and more geckos because the DDT made the lizards lethargic and easy to catch. The cats later died.

With the resident population of cats mostly gone, rats began to flourish and a bacterial infection spread. Government officials reached out to the World Health Organization once again. This time the organization didn’t have a ready-made answer. After much consultation, they decided to have the Royal Air Force parachute in thousands of cats to eat the mice. One decision caused a sequence of impacts and eventually cats were flying in the sky.

While I’m not certain of the veracity of every detail of this story, it does make a point. Decisions have consequences, including many unexpected effects.

Let’s apply the law of unintended consequences to current policy proposals (like a wall, import taxes and commandeered remittances) that hurt Mexico. What else could happen that would hurt U.S. national interests?

    • The wall could cost more than is estimated. Legal fees, compensation to land owners and difficult terrain could prove costly.
    • A trade war could start that would hurt U.S. exporters and consumers. Prices could rise; jobs could decrease. The shock to the economy could cause a recession.
    • Mexico could stop sharing U.S. intelligence info and be more lenient with foreigners who travel through Mexico to enter the U.S. (mostly Central American countries).
    • If the Mexico economy suffers, drug cartels could gather strength. Criminal violence could increase. Mexico’s tourism economy could suffer, creating more economic harm.
    • U.S. nativism could revive Mexican populism and nationalism. Antagonism between our two countries could increase to uncomfortable levels.
    • Mexicans could boycott U.S. companies with a presence in Mexico. Wal-Mart, Costco, Starbucks, Apple and others could feel the squeeze.
    • More undocumented people could arrive by sea, potentially creating our own European-like humanitarian crisis.
    • Drones and tunnels could circumvent the expensive wall and bring more illegal drugs into the United States to feed our drug problem.

The law of unintended consequences works both positively and negatively. Positive impacts could occur as well. But I contend that Condoleezza Rice got it right. When we hurt Mexico, we hurt ourselves. America’s best immigration policy is a prosperous Mexico.

Natalie GochnourNatalie Gochnour is an associate dean of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.