Immigration Reform Could Bring a Bigger Fence, But Miss Out on Trade

Mexico spent $163 billion on U.S. goods in 2010.

March 4, 2013— -- While politicians debating immigration reform have focused on the need for more secure borders, they've largely ignored an equally important aspect -- trade.

Border economies benefit from both international trade and local investment in areas like retail and real estate. And as the economies in the U.S. and Mexico emerge from the recession, there are indications that trade will keep growing.

The number of legal border crossings jumped in the past year, Fox News reported last week. There were 703,094 more legal border crossings in 2012 compared with the previous year.

Places like El Paso, Texas, which sees 17,000 pedestrian crossers per day, are glad to see the increased traffic.

"Many of them come over to do shopping, so we have a very vibrant trade with Mexico," said John Cook, the city's Democratic mayor. Pedestrians head to stores in the city's downtown area, and Mexican visitors with cars go to local malls. "I would say that at least 20 percent of the vehicles parked there have Mexican license plates on them," Cook said.

The impact of trade with Mexico goes far beyond border communities. Mexico spent $163 billion on U.S. goods in 2010, and trade with Mexico helps keep six million American workers employed, according to a report by the left-leaning New Policy Institute and Arizona State University's North American Center For Transborder Studies.

But for border economies, the buying power from Mexico -- the world's 12th largest economy -- is vitally important. "The great engine of growth on our borders, since our cities are pretty the Mexican economy," said Pia Orrenius, assistant vice president and senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The immigration dialogue in Washington, however, has focused more on border security than on ways to maximize trade with Mexico. Conservatives are calling for additional spending on immigration enforcement and a bipartisan Senate blueprint for immigration reform would require the country to meet certain benchmarks on border security before offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Meanwhile, decades of increased enforcement have slowed the time it takes to cross the border, even with all your paperwork in order.

Cook says that immigration reform talk has been mostly centered on border fencing, drones and sensors to detect unauthorized border crossers.

"All of that is only aimed at increasing the security of the border, not facilitating the trade," he said. "There's been a lack of investment at the ports of entry. And unfortunately the vibrations I'm getting from Washington is not to expect any change in that soon."