There was an uncomfortable moment when Donald Trump, of all people, offered a proposal in the immigration debate that sounded eerily similar to something I have been thinking about.
After 25 years of reporting and writing on immigration, I recently found myself trying to come up with a new way to deter illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico.
Then it hit me: remittances. Mexican expatriates in the United States send home nearly $25 billion annually, most of it in wire transfers or bank deposits. Some of it comes from legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens, but much of it from the undocumented.
That figure must have caught Trump’s attention. Pressed to explain how he plans to get Mexico to pay for what he insists will be a “big, beautiful wall” on the border, Trump has included into his immigration reform plan a threat to “impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages.”
And in a new twist, the billionaire suggested that he would use the confiscated funds to pay for the wall unless Mexico agrees to a one-time payment of $5 billion to $10 billion.
Good luck with that, amigo. Mexico will not give in to blackmail – even though what Trump proposes is a bargain. Every four years, the Mexican economy takes in $100 billion from Mexicans living in the United States.
It can afford to kick back a percentage to the house. The real reason Mexico won’t do so is because it has no interest in building a wall that may cut into profits by limiting migration to the north.
Welcome to Real World Border Economics 101.
My idea was a little different. I would not seize the remittances entirely. Government confiscation of private property doesn’t seem like something the Republican Party should be toying with.
However, I would tax the money transfers at 50 percent. Also, my goal wouldn’t be to raise funds to build a wall that won’t be effective anyway, but rather to discourage future illegal immigration.
After all, there is no denying that illegal immigrants work long hours under harsh conditions doing jobs that Americans won’t do.
But it is also true that, once they get a job in the United States, these immigrants send much of their earnings home to family in Mexico. And while they live here, they can get free medical care and free education for their children.
Then, when they retire, some of them will return home to Mexico to live out the rest of their life in relative comfort in, for instance, a house that they paid for with wages earned in the United States. That’s not fair.
If it were suddenly no longer economically advantageous to double-dip in this manner, these immigrants might think twice about coming here. They might try harder to find well-paying work in Mexico, or go to another country.
As an added bonus, if the remittances coming from the United States started coming in 50 percent lighter, the Mexican elites who are currently in denial about the contributions of lowly Mexican workers in the United States might finally acknowledge how dependent Mexico has become on this reliable source of foreign income.
Besides, let’s be honest. The wages accumulated by illegal immigrants – while undeniably hard-earned – might also be considered ill-gotten gains. They were earned with fake Social Security numbers, and they’re being paid to workers who shouldn’t even be in this country.
Which brings me back to my favorite, and least-popular, solution to America’s illegal immigration problem: cracking down on employers.
They, too, have benefited from their own form of ill-gotten gains: namely, the profits generated from using illegal immigrant labor because Americans weren’t interested in doing these jobs at any price.
Once a company is accused of using illegal immigrant labor, and those charges have been investigated and found to have merit, the government should audit the business and determine how much of its profits were derived from illegitimate labor. Then we can tax that portion of its profits at 50 percent, just like we do the remittances.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Trump to propose something that radical. When it’s time to get tough, he zeroes in on immigrants over employers because – like most bullies – he only picks on those who can’t fight back.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., formerly of Sanger, is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is email@example.com.