We Should Balance Compassion, Sovereignty and Security in Immigration

By Luanne Zurlo Published on February 8, 2017

The sobbing face of 8-year old José is seared into my memory. During my visit to a Catholic school classroom in Chalco, a poor community outside Mexico City, the teacher asked José to stand up and talk about his father.  His father had embarked upon a trek to enter the U.S. illegally to find work to feed his family. But no one had heard from him for weeks. Was he even alive?

Stories like this one raise broader issues for all of us. To what extent should the U.S. open its doors to the millions of people around the world, like José’s father, who seek escape from desperate circumstances?

Immigration and compassion are in America’s DNA. Since its foundation, the U.S. has done a great job absorbing mostly documented, legal European immigrants into our Anglo-Protestant culture. Immigration and the openness and fluidity of our markets also have been critical ingredients of our extraordinary economic success.

But today the majority of immigrants come from non-European cultures, many without documentation (and hence, legal status), while some 15% of our population is comprised of immigrants, the highest level in our history. 

Across the world, citizens are reeling from forces such as economic dislocation, Islamic extremism and secular globalism, which questions the value of the nation-state. For many, particularly those who have benefited from globalization, the nation-state has become passé perhaps even somehow “racist.” 

So it should come as no surprise that immigration has become a defining political issue of our day, making the response to the question of ‘how many and who should we admit’ more complicated than it may initially appear. So is the issue of U.S.-Mexican relations.

Our Neighbor to the South

Mexico is a proud nation with historical sensitivities vis-à-vis the U.S. For President Trump to antagonize a weakened Mexican leader is not constructive, even as an attempt to negotiate from strength. It jeopardizes the important role Mexico plays in border security and could push Mexicans toward anti-American leaders, who aren’t scarce in the country. We don’t need another Hugo Chavez ruling our southern neighbor.

Mexico’s up and coming political and corporate leaders have embraced positive elements of American culture, thanks to improved relations in recent decades. A growing cadre of Mexican elites comes to study in the U.S. It’s not in either country’s interests to jeopardize this pro-U.S. trajectory.

Nor is it helpful to hear immigration advocates slander our president by comparing him to Hitler, or deny that the U.S. (like Mexico) has a legitimate right to control its borders. The fact is that the border exists, and it must be controlled, with due regard for humanitarian interests.

America must be able to control who enters the U.S. for security and legal reasons.

For decades, immigration to the U.S. served as a pressure valve for Mexico’s low growth economy. This arrangement worked well for the U.S., too, until globalization and the technological revolution put downward pressure on industrial wages and job growth north of the border.

Today, many Americans view Mexican illegal immigration and the growing trade imbalance in Mexico’s favor, rightly or wrongly, as a cause of low unemployment and wages in the U.S. That’s why Trump won.

America’s richest one-fourth has benefitted from legal and illegal immigration, while those at lower income levels have paid an outsized share of the direct costs. Returning to a state of equilibrium between our two countries will require a better deal for both working-class Mexicans and Americans. How can this be achieved?

First, securing the border is essential. America must be able to control who enters the U.S. for security and legal reasons. We cannot allow cartels and people-smugglers to usurp the role of the U.S. federal government. If we build a wall, we’ll have to pay for it ourselves.

Ours is the only major First/Third World border on earth. It is a long border, without natural protection over most of its 2,000 miles. Per capita income (PPP-adjusted) is $54K in the U.S. and $16K in Mexico, though most Mexicans live on much less, due to extreme inequality. Until Mexico’s political and economic elite effectively address structural problems and corruption, growth will remain anemic and Mexicans will continue to seek work in the U.S. Stemming illegal immigration may encourage Mexican economic and political reform.

Temporary work permits would discourage Mexicans from permanently staying in the U.S., helping to keep families and communities in Mexico intact.

A Wall With a Door

Along with the wall, we need a door. The U.S. should reactivate a modified temporary worker program, like the one that worked well after WWII until the mid-1960’s. Enabling Mexicans with formal work engagements to more easily enter and exit the U.S. would encourage Americans to hire within legal channels. Employment laws would have to be more seriously enforced, for instance by making E-Verify mandatory.

Temporary work permits would discourage Mexicans from permanently staying in the U.S., helping to keep families and communities in Mexico intact. Formal work permits would also provide Mexican immigrant workers legal protections, drawing them out of the shadows where they have no rights or protections.

As for José’s father, I wish I could report a neat, happy ending, but I do not know what happened to him. Let’s assume the most ‘positive’ outcome: that José’s father is still alive, successfully entered the U.S., found work, and regularly sent needed funds back home. Most people like him still lose. And both countries lose. José’s family has been torn apart. His community is stripped of men. In the U.S., the rule of law, upon which a well-functioning civil society and robust economy depend, has been even further eroded.

President Trump has credibility amongst those who want to aggressively secure our porous borders. Does he have the will and leadership skills to repeat a Nixon in China historic achievement? Can he improve border security and revamp immigration policy so that U.S. cultural, economic and security interests are balanced with a humane, Christian concern for families like José’s? That balance is best for Americans in the long run.


Luanne D. Zurlo is a clinical professor of finance in the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. After nearly a decade working as a ranked equity analyst on Wall Street, she founded in 2002 the non-profit Worldfund, dedicated to raising education levels in Mexico and South America.

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