Snaking 1,900 miles from Tijuana to Matamoros, San Diego to Brownsville, the border between Mexico and the United States might seem large. But its physical size is dwarfed by the passions that it evokes among hundreds of millions of people spread to its north and south. As anxiously scrutinized as they are heavily traversed, those miles of desert, rivers, and fences symbolize to some a gateway to everything that is great about America, while to others they are a gaping leak on a sinking ship. Even the most casual observer of America’s front-page headlines or late-night TV monologues knows of big city rallies, millions of immigrants strong, and of the volunteer army of Minutemen, rifle-toting citizens intent on locking down the border. That border and its issues recently brought Congress to a standstill, and may help decide the next American President.

To bring some lucid, new perspectives to this snarl of conflicting ideas and heated rhetoric, David Besanko, the Kellogg School’s Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs: Planning and External Relations, visited Mexico to share some unique analyses of Mexican-U.S. immigration with groups of Kellogg alumni and their colleagues. These lively and popular sessions, held in November 2007 in Monterrey and Mexico City, were among the first installments of the new Kellogg Insight Live: Global Edition.

“This situation isn’t completely unique, but it’s the most studied example of immigration along a fairly large border,” said Besanko, the Alvin J. Huss Professor of Management and Strategy. “There are some other cases—for example immigration from Eastern Europe or Turkey into Western Europe. But right now, it’s certainly the most important in terms of absolute magnitude, and because the enormous differences in economic circumstances between the U.S. and Mexico make the attraction to immigrate as great here as anywhere.”

U.S. Immigration Policy

For over forty years, U.S. immigration policy has been governed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Also known as the Hart-Celler Act, this law places an extremely high priority on unifying families, permitting preferential admission of immigrants whose kin are already in the United States. In 2006 more than 800,000 thousand people—immigrants followed by their families—were admitted to the United States on this basis, while only about 135,000 were admitted or granted temporary visas based on their work skills (Chua 2007). A generation after Hart-Celler, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) strengthened border enforcement, made it illegal to employ undocumented immigrants, created visas for seasonal workers, and granted amnesty to immigrants who were in the United States prior to 1982.

The ink had barely dried on IRCA when Congress passed another major immigration law. The Immigration Reform Act of 1990 capped the number of admitted immigrants to 700,000 per year. It also created H-1B temporary visas, which have become more valuable than gold to the skilled foreign workers for whom the visas are reserved, and to the growing legions of U.S. companies whose continued existence depends on amassing technically skilled talent. Immigration once again became a central part of the U.S. political agenda in 2005 and 2006. President George W. Bush pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, and the House and Senate each passed complex bills that were so different that Congressional leaders did not even attempt to reconcile them. In 2007 an attempt to achieve bipartisan consensus in the Senate on a bill co-sponsored by Senators McCain and Kennedy also ended in failure. Given the U.S. federal system of government, a portion of the financial burden of Washington’s gridlock is borne by state and local governments, which must provide education and healthcare to populations that have increased—in some cases significantly—due to immigration. As a result, more and more state houses and town councils see no choice but to work on their own solutions. What will these next landmark U.S. immigration policies look like?

“We know what’s not going to happen: attempts to round up and deport undocumented immigrants on a mass basis. The American people aren’t likely to tolerate that sort of extreme solution,” said Besanko. “In Mexico, this is the most important issue in terms of its relationship with the United States. But right now, U.S. policy on immigration is not popular in Mexico. President Calderón has accused the United States of being hypocritical. So for the foreseeable future, the current stalemate on immigration policy in the United States will add a degree of tension to U.S.-Mexican relations.”

The Flow of Immigrants

Agree with them, or disagree with them, America’s immigration policies have kept its borders busy. From 2001 to 2005, the United States added roughly five new immigrants for every one thousand residents, bringing the total U.S. immigrant population to an estimated 37 million. Roughly one of every eight people in the United States is an immigrant, about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population. That percentage is over four times higher than the portion of the total global population who live as immigrants, only 2.9 percent. More than a third of the immigrants living in the United States, 34.1 percent, are from Mexico, eclipsing by far the next largest group, Indians, who comprise 4.6 percent of the U.S. immigrant population.

Table 1: Source countries of U.S. foreign-born population
visit site, accessed April 4, 2008.)