Tighter immigration control spells troubles for the border economy

Published 10 November 2009

There are many facets to the debate about the best way to handle illegal immigration into the United States, but for the 210 U.S. border counties, where the economy and immigration are tied closely together, tighter immigration control means slowdown in business activity

There are 210 counties in the United States which some call “immigration nation” — that is, counties where the economy and immigration are tied closely together. Most of the immigration nation counties are in the Southwest.

Dante Chinni writes in the Christian Science Monitor that in the past two years, as the United States struggled with economic problems, the effects for Immigration Nation have multiplied. Tighter attitudes toward immigration, combined with a smaller flow of people from Mexico, are dramatically altering the landscape.

Chinni notes that 2008 marked the first time since 1970 that the U.S. foreign-born population decreased, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Earlier this year, Janet Napolitano, DHS secretary, said the economic challenges had led to a drop in illegal immigration. Stricter rules on border security, implemented in the wake of 9/11, have further impeded the flow.

In counties where economic activity is tied to the flow and presence of immigrants, this has spelled economic trouble.

Traffic and spending slows

Last month KJZZ, a public radio station in Arizona, aired a report detailing the problems that businesses on both sides of the border have had as security measures have tightened. The customer base for those businesses have become much harder to reach. In Arizona, legal border crossings have dropped by 15 percent in recent years. The people who do come to the businesses simply spend less.

Chinni writes that it is hard to overestimate how much the economies in Immigration Nation counties are tied to cross-border traffic. Small businesses employ immigrants. Fewer immigrants mean fewer employees, as well as fewer consumers.

This spring, when he visited El Mirage, Arizona, a community in Maricopa County, he heard from people about a definite drop in temporary residents. Many were instead headed to locales further north where there might be work, or they were simply heading home, according to Roy Delgado, a city councilman in the city.

That trend seems to have continued, according to Rachel Gomez, co-owner of the Rio Mirage Cafe. “The immigration population is either changing, or people just aren’t going out to dinner or shopping or any of that sort of thing where they might be picked up by our sheriff,” she wrote in an e-mail to Chinni. “In any case they are not working anymore, therefore not paying FICA [for Social Security and Medicare] and federal taxes, which they will never receive anyway.”

Further impact
Gomez says she never hires people without the proper documentation and she herself was born and raised in this country. “Her sheriff,” though — Maricopa County’s Joe Arpaio — has made illegal immigration a main issue, and sometime her friends can run into trouble.

The personal impact of immigration is vast, says Sylvia Rivera, who owns a local sewing business and who is also a U.S. citizen. “I was personally touched by this when my friend’s husband was picked up and sent back to Mexico,” she wrote in an e-mail. “He’s been here for 11 years and has always been illegal.”

Rivera writes that the family should have taken care of that issue a long time ago, but she still feels bad for them. Regardless, the result is not just a hit to the people she knows, but also a hit to the broader local economy.

There is no easy answer, of course,” Chinni concludes. “Illegal immigration will continue to be a hot-button issue for the foreseeable future. Combining that issue with economic problems, however, puts ‘Immigration Nation’ communities in a unique and difficult spot. Recovery here could be a long, hard road.”