NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Does Border Enforcement Protect U.S. Workers From Illegal Immigration?



"Stricter enforcement does deter illegal immigration. But illegal immigration has only a minimal effect on labor markets in U.S. border regions."

There is concern in the United States that the ready availability of public assistance has contributed to illegal immigration from Mexico, especially during times of Mexican economic difficulties. Many wonder to what extent illegal immigration might affect the wages of U.S. workers. As a consequence, border enforcement has become the centerpiece of U.S. immigration policy with Mexico. In fact, the number of hours that Border Patrol agents spent patrolling our border with Mexico nearly tripled from 1977 to 1997, from 1.8 million to 5.1 million.

In Does Border Enforcement Protect U.S. Workers From Illegal Immigration? (NBER Working Paper No. 7054), authors Gordon Hanson, Raymond Robertson, and Antonio Spilimbergo find that for the United States, only the lumber industry in California and Texas is affected positively, and only slightly, by border enforcement. When enforcement is high, wages rise slightly. For all other industries they examine, there is no impact on the wages of poorly educated males in U.S. border regions.

In Mexican border regions, though, wages fall for poorly educated males in Tijuana when U.S. border enforcement is high. Tijuana is where a large number of immigrants attempted to enter the United States illegally over the authors' sample period.

Using monthly and quarterly data on wages, person-hours logged by the U.S. Border Patrol, and the number of apprehensions made, the authors conclude that stricter enforcement does deter illegal immigration. But illegal immigration has only a minimal effect on labor markets in U.S. border regions, probably for two reasons. First, given continuing illegal immigration, U.S. natives may leave border regions or be deterred from moving to those regions. Second, the economies of border regions may gradually shift to industries that make intensive use of immigrants' skills. The authors thus conclude that the perceived impact of illegal immigration on wages has been exaggerated.

-- Lester A. Picker


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