The desire for immigration into America is so strong that a large number of migrants die trying. Since 1998, 1,113 migrants are known to have died approaching the United States from Mexico-killed by extreme temperatures, drowning, or other hazards. With the Border Patrol successfully clamping down on illegal aliens through major urban checkpoints (boasting that illegal entries in San Diego are down to a 25-year low), illegal aliens are shifting to remote border areas. A group of 14 died of exposure in the desert of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge on the border west of Tucson last May. Another five people have died in Arizona alone since that incident.
The Border Patrol works hard to save at least 1,000 imperiled immigrant lives each year. It's even joining forces with Humane Borders, a new group dedicated to setting up stations across stretches of the desert with food, water, and shelter for illegal aliens, despite fears of area residents that this might encourage more illegal immigration. Government agents provided the volunteers maps that showed where migrant deaths occurred, to help them plan where to set up their survival stations. For the "Border Patrol and Humane Borders, this is a new experience," said Pastor John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church of Tucson, one of eight "sanctuary" movement organizers convicted in 1986 of smuggling citizens of "far-right" Central American countries to the United States.
The Mexican influx in search of jobs is meeting with a growing congressional support for expanding "guest worker" provisions in immigration law. While only about 40,000 migrants receive official H-2A visas as guest workers, the General Accounting Office estimated that approximately 600,000 farm workers were working in the United States without legal authorization, while others guess their numbers are as high as 5 million.
The surprising central figure in the new campaign is Sen. Phil Gramm, a staunch supporter of tough immigration laws passed in 1986. Mr. Gramm as well as another usual tough cookie on immigration, former Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms, have met with Mexican officials and professed support for guest-worker expansions. The softening is due in large part to new president Vicente Fox, who has also discussed the guest-worker issue with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Mr. Gramm's plan would cover not just agricultural workers, but workers in all businesses. To address union and farm-activist complaints, all workers would be covered by U.S. labor laws. Workers would also put some of their wages into IRA-type funds, which they could redeem in their native lands. But farm worker activists insist that plenty of Americans are available for these jobs, and say that even domestic workers are underpaid and mistreated. The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation declared that the unemployment rate in 18 agricultural counties last year was between 10 and 20 percent, even during peak production months.
But in a study for the Cato Institute, the late economist Julian Simon found that an old guest-worker law, the "bracero" program, had an astonishing impact on illegal immigration from 1956 to 1964, lowering apprehensions from 500,000 to 100,000. "This is one of the most conclusive quasi-experiments in social policy that has ever been conducted. The inverse correlation between apprehensions and guest workers must astonish any social scientist," he wrote.
As hard as it is for many Americans to believe, the fact remains that to be poor in the United States still looks like an extreme blessing to people peering through the windows from other countries. Centuries into the American experiment, immigrants are still clamoring to join the multitude that Emma Lazarus called "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."