In response to:

Borderline Cases from the October 22, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

John M. Crewdson’s review of Miller’s On the Border and Hansen’s The Border Economy [NYR, October 22], though lengthy, provides little essential information on the illegal immigration problem, and mis-interprets what information it does provide. Those of us who actually live in the US-Mexican border region owe it to other readers of The New York Review to correct Mr. Crewdson’s misunderstandings and fill in his lacunae.

It is absurd, for example, for Mr. Crewdson to repeat Tom Miller’s facetious “calculation” that it would take two and a half million men, standing shoulder to shoulder, to close the Mexican border to illegal aliens. In fact most of the border runs through flat, wide-open, sparsely-vegetated desert country. Except for the far-scattered towns and cities, most of the border could be easily patrolled and easily “sealed”; a force of 20,000, or ten men per mile, properly armed and equipped, would have no difficulty—short of a military attack—in keeping out unwelcome intruders. In and near the few towns and cities a physical barrier is obviously needed, of the type routinely used everywhere else to restrict and control access. People do not cut holes through chain-link fences when the fences are watched and guarded.

Furthermore there is widespread popular support for closing our southern border to the Latino invasion. A recent NPR broadcast (the “All Things Considered” program) cited various national polls indicating that 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans now object strongly to these mass immigrations from Mexico and other Hispanic countries. A poll by Arizona’s Senator DeConcini revealed that about 79 percent of his constituents (and this in a state with a large and rapidly-growing Hispanic population) want the illegal aliens deported and the immigration laws strictly enforced. No doubt there is an element of ethnic chauvinism in this hostility to Mexicans et alii—and that element will grow violent and much larger if the influx continues—but the sentiment is based on the clear awareness that these aliens do indeed take jobs away from American citizens and that the estimated ten billion dollars remitted annually from Mexican aliens to their relatives still in Mexico is money that should be going into the pockets of American workers. To say, as Mr. Crewdson does, that the presence of these foreign millions “creates” employment for American workers is to kid us along with the magical economics of Reagan & Co., that wondrous world wherein food is produced in supermarkets and rabbits are born in hats. If, as Mr. Crewdson seems to believe, the proliferation of human bodies somehow “creates” new wealth for all then Mexico would be a rich nation without need to push its surplus population northward, and India and China would be the richest nations on earth.

The actual reason why our immigration laws are not enforced is obvious and well-known (though seldom mentioned in polite print): there are four small but powerful groups on both sides of the border who benefit from this expanding northerly migration. Cui bono? is now as always the appropriate question, and the answer is, first, American employers in all fields, from industrialized agriculture to factory manufacturing, who thrive on the unlimited supply of cheap, docile, non-union labor. One simple way to halt the alien incursion would be to penalize employers, with jail sentences if necessary, who hire illegal aliens. Simple but politically unlikely; no doubt it will be easier to militarize the international border.

The second group of beneficiaries are the merchants in the American side of the border towns, who do a brisk trade in selling American goods to Mexicans. A third group are the Mexican-American politicians in the southwestern states, eager to expand their power base. The fourth group are the wealthy and dominant classes in Mexico itself, who require the safety valve of easy, large-scale emigration (for their poor) in order to postpone for as long as possible the next, and inevitable, revolution in their desperately overpopulated nation. American “interests” (the term “ruling class” is now taboo, right?), anxious to secure access to Mexico’s oil, must therefore appease Mexican “interests” by overlooking illegal immigration while at the same time offering at least a token response to the popular demand for a halt to it; thus we have the cosmetic but ineffectual proposals of the Carter and Reagan administrations.

These are harsh, even cruel propositions, but in fact the American boat is full, if not already overloaded; we cannot afford further mass immigration. The American public is aware of this truth even if our “leaders” prefer to attempt to ignore it. We know what they will not acknowledge, that the tendency of mass immigration from Mexico is to degrade and cheapen American life downward to the Hispanic standard. Anyone who has made a recent visit to Mexico, or even to Miami, Florida, knows what I mean. When the call for compassion is raised (a word now hopelessly corrupted by its use in the mouths of such as Nixon, Carter, and Reagan) we must answer that the most compassionate thing we can do for nations like Mexico is to encourage them, somehow, to commence the policies of deep internal reform and population stabilization that are clearly necessary.

Edward Abbey

Tucson, Arizona

John Crewdson replies:

Here is a brief quiz for Mr. Edward Abbey:

  1. Since illegal border crossings occur around the clock, would his imagined force of 20,000 border guards (ten times as many as there are now) work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? Or is he really envisioning three eight-hour shifts of 20,000 border guards (a number roughly equivalent to four Marine divisions)? If so, how much less facetious is his suggestion than Mr. Miller’s?

  2. Even supposing that the Mexican border could somehow be “sealed,” how would Mr. Abbey then propose to stop the brisk alien boat traffic in the Caribbean, the increasing southward flow of aliens across the Canadian border, and the estimated half-million foreigners a year who enter the United States with valid visas and simply stay on after they expire?

  3. Since many of those who successfully cross the Mexican border have already been arrested and turned back several times, would increasing the border patrol to thirty times its present size mean that thirty times more aliens were apprehended or simply that the same border-crossers were apprehended still more often before finally making a successful entry?

  4. If “people do not cut holes through chain-link fences when the fences are watched and guarded,” why is it that the fences that run through downtown El Paso and San Ysidro, California, where the border patrol is most heavily concentrated, are full of holes?

  5. How many of Mr. Abbey’s American friends are out-of-work dishwashers, maids, hotel workers, fieldhands, bakery workers, janitors, busboys, waiters, garage attendants, street cleaners, seamstresses, cannery workers, gardeners, roofers, hod-carriers, garbagemen, taxi drivers, and common laborers?

  6. Is it possible that the Roper poll of which Mr. Abbey writes, taken in June 1980, was more a response to the tens of thousands of Cubans then arriving at Key West than any continuing concern among Americans over the “Latino invasion” from Mexico and Central America? Isn’t it also possible that the 80 to 90 percent of Americans who favor bringing further illegal immigration to a halt may be as badly misinformed about the true costs and benefits of such an act as Mr. Abbey appears to be?

  7. Where, if not right here, do the millions of foreign workers now living illegally in this country buy their food, automobiles, clothing, gasoline, shoes, portable radios and televisions, furniture, dishes, children’s toys, Christmas presents, light bulbs, and tooth-paste? Where do they go to the doctor, the dentist, or the movies? Where do they pay their sales, income, gasoline, property, and Social Security taxes?

  8. Might it be that more consumers make for expanded markets and more jobs in the United States but not always in India or China because the highly developed American economy can more easily translate increased demand into increased production than can the far less developed economies of China, India, or Mexico?

  9. Why do “Mexican-American politicians…eager to expand their power base” have an interest in increased illegal immigration, since illegal aliens cannot vote?

  10. Apart from American employers, border merchants and “the wealthy and dominant classes in Mexico,” is it possible that those who benefit from the presence of foreign workers in the United States also include (a) the workers themselves, who are earning much more than they could at home; (b) the families of those workers, who consequently enjoy a higher standard of living; (c) American consumers, for whom the prices of everything from restaurant meals to baby buggies are lower than they would otherwise be; or (d) all of the above?

  11. If American “interests” are so anxious to secure access to Mexican oil (in fact, Mexico has declared its intention of producing very little oil for export, and at the moment Mexican oil makes up only 7.5 percent of our total imports), then why has the Reagan administration proposed the stiffest measures so far to halt illegal immigration, among them a new law prohibiting the hiring of undocumented workers?

  12. What on earth does Mr. Abbey mean when he says that mass immigration from Mexico tends to “degrade and cheapen American life downward to the Hispanic standard”?

One is tempted to say that Mr. Abbey, who lives in the bilingual, bicultural city of Tucson, and not in Cedar Rapids, ought to know that the values most of the new immigrants bring with them are the same ones that Americans have traditionally professed, among them thrift, industry, piety, and devotion to family. That he does not know better is clear from his frightened and unreasoning vision of America as a boat filled to overflowing, a nation whose “standards” are in mortal danger of degradation. In Mr. Abbey’s world, it might make sense to send the Marines to guard the Mexican border against more interlopers. If nothing else, they are certainly “properly armed and equipped.” But it is also possible to view the new arrivals as bringing with them something of both economic and cultural value, rather than taking something away, and if Mr. Abbey feels uncomfortable with this notion then he is in for a bad time of it. Marines or no Marines, the new immigrants are going to keep on coming.

This Issue

December 17, 1981