By George J. Borjas
The New York Times
All material copyright The New York Times Company, 1996. All rights reserved.
The costs of illegal immigration in both economic and social disarray are high. That is why California voters backed Proposition 187, which denies many social benefits to illegal aliens, including public education.
Congress joined the fray. Earlier this year, the House passed the Gallegly amendment, which would give states the right to bar illegal aliens from public schools. The measure faces a tougher time in the Senate.
Such a ban on schooling probably would prompt some people to think twice before crossing the border illegally.
After all, we know that illegal immigration from Mexico responds to the price of tomatoes in the United States: There are more Border Patrol apprehensions when the price is high and farms pay more to harvest the crops.
If aliens respond to the price of tomatoes, they may well respond to the cut in education benefits.
Still, is this an effective way of stopping the illegal flow?
Imagine the emotional outrage when the evening news begins with a scene of two burly Border Patrol officers preventing a sobbing 7-year-old from entering a public school.
This image alone, and the shameful history it evokes, suggests that this policy is not a serious attempt to curtail the illegal alien flow, for it is unlikely ever to be enforced.
The policy also fails to address the real underpinning of the illegal immigration problem: the wage gap between the United States and Mexico -- the largest between any two contiguous countries.
The incentives for Mexicans to migrate are enormous. And U.S. employers benefit from the entry of illegal aliens. A vast pool of workers keeps wages down.
So both illegal aliens and their employers want to see the tide continue. Few are penalized for breaking the law.
When an illegal alien is caught, the Border Patrol sends the person back across the border. Typically, the migrant tries again.
Once people make it to the United States, they can easily buy fake documents and be hired by an employer who will do no more than give the papers a cursory inspection.
Illegal aliens go to emergency rooms, send their children to public schools, apply for welfare, get drivers' licenses. They have frequent contact with government agencies.
Yet nobody is held accountable for this large-scale lawbreaking.
We need deterrence, but barring illegal aliens from our public schools is not an effective way of stopping illegal immigration. For one thing, it would have no effect on the migration of single people and childless couples.
In addition, many children who live in undocumented households were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens courtesy of the 14th Amendment, so they are automatically entitled to public education.
We could deter many more illegal aliens if we imposed substantial penalties on the employers who hire them.
The companies -- agricultural enterprises, sweatshops -- get the bulk of the gains from illegal immigration but bear few of the costs.
What would happen to the demand for undocumented workers if we billed the owners of the fields where the migrants toil, and the families who hire illegal domestic help, for the expenses incurred by public schools and Medicaid?
Finally, any serious proposal most offer a way of determining who is an illegal alien.
Regardless of where we choose to catch them -- the school or the workplace -- we need to be able to tell them apart from legal immigrants.
We have yet to grapple with this troublesome detail, which raises the specter of a national identification system. But we cannot tackle the problem of illegal immigration as long as we skirt this issue.
We do need to discourage illegal aliens from entering the country, and encourage those already here to leave. Barring them from public schools, however, is more symbol than substance.
The fact that it has become the centerpiece of the current debate implies that Congress is not yet serious about stopping the tide of illegal immigrants.
George J. Borjas is a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.