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Summary: The Border Within: The Economics of Immigration in an Age of Fear by Kalee Thompson and Tara Watson


Much of the public debate about immigration is based on assumptions that are patently false, professor Tara Watson and journalist Kalee Thompson report in this eye-opening text. For instance, most immigrants aren’t criminals; in fact, first-generation immigrants are far less likely to commit violent crimes than people born on US soil. And migrants generally avoid using food stamps and other programs for America’s poor. In this intriguing work, Watson and Thompson interweave thought-provoking tales of immigrants who have faced deportation with a sobering analysis of the academic literature about immigration.


  • Economic opportunity is the primary driver of illegal immigration to the United States.
  • Immigration has reshaped the market for low-wage, low-skill work in America.
  • First-generation immigrants are unlikely to commit crimes.
  • Jorge Ramirez was born in Mexico and struggling to make a living when he moved illegally to the United States.
  • Eduarado Lopez was just a teen when he left Mexico and headed to Ohio.
  • Anabel Barron grew up in Texas, but she was born in Mexico.
  • Fatima Cabrera was a 17-year-old single mother in Guatemala when she decided to move to Massachusetts.

Summary: The Border Within: The Economics of Immigration in an Age of Fear by Kalee Thompson and Tara Watson


Economic opportunity is the primary driver of illegal immigration to the United States.

People who move from poor countries to the United States do so primarily to earn a better living than they could at home. Some migrants flee violence at home, but the majority are looking for a paycheck. The cause and effect is seen when economic shocks hit Latin America. After Mexican wages plunged in 1999, for instance, US border patrol agents experienced a surge in apprehensions.

“The labor market is central to the debate about immigration in America.”

While American-born men with low levels of education tend not to relocate for work, Mexican-born migrants are quite willing to move around the United States in search of employment. Migration patterns have created a surge in the supply of workers without high school degrees. However, researchers have found little effect on wages for US-born workers. In fact, native workers benefit from immigration because overall economic activity increases, and native-born workers take higher-skilled positions.

Immigration has reshaped the market for low-wage, low-skill work in America.

One obvious effect of immigration is that Americans today rarely tend their own lawns. In the 1950s and 1960s, fathers and their sons would mow their suburban lawns; outsourcing landscape care was the privilege of the wealthy. That changed amid an influx of migrants. In Southern California, yard service costs as little as $60 a month, a reflection of a surplus of willing workers.

“The increase in Mexican-born gardeners coincides with the overall rise in immigrants to the US, and particularly with Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles.”

For immigrant workers who lack formal education, lawn care offers a way to make money. Laborers typically make just $20,000 to $25,000 a year, and they must work long hours in grueling conditions. However, immigrants who rise to the level of landscaping business owners can make $60,000 to $100,000 a year. These entrepreneurs must master marketing, logistics and expense management, but they can generate incomes that were unthinkable in their home countries. The influx of foreign-born gardeners is just one way immigration has remade the US economy.

First-generation immigrants are unlikely to commit crimes.

Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson analyzed violent crimes in Chicago neighborhoods, and he compared rates of violence among white, Black and Mexican-American residents. Sampson found that first-generation Mexican immigrants were 45% less likely to engage in violent acts than those whose parents had been born in the United States. Residents of immigrant neighborhoods also were less likely to commit violent acts. Other academics have uncovered similar trends. Kristin Butcher, an economist at Wellesley College, found that immigrants were imprisoned at just 20% the rate of native-born men of the same age.

“There is a broad understanding among social scientists that so-called selection bias exists in who chooses to immigrate to the US.”

Researchers generally agree that immigrants represent their home countries’ best and brightest. People who leave Mexico or another country for the United States are motivated to work and to achieve, and they’re disposed not to commit crimes. Common sense suggests that moving to another country requires hefty investments of money and effort, and those who make such an investment aren’t prone to rash decisions or foolish acts. While Latino immigrants don’t vault to the top of the US income scale, they perform well on other measures of social cohesion, such as the frequency of two-parent households and church attendance, an illustration of the “Latino paradox.”

“Some researchers argue that smoking is the main driver of the healthy immigrant paradox.”

This paradox also applies to health outcomes. Compared to native-born Americans, Latino immigrants have lower mortality rates and give birth to healthier babies, even in the face of lower incomes and less access to health care. Immigrants have lower levels of cancer and heart disease. One possible explanation is that only people in relatively good health make the arduous journey to a new life in a new country. Latino immigrants also are far less likely to smoke than are non-Latino whites, and that behavior, along with stronger social cohesion, might explain why immigrants are healthier.

Jorge Ramirez was born in Mexico and struggling to make a living when he moved illegally to the United States.

In 2005, when he was 24 years old, Ramirez paid a coyote – a smuggler – $1,500 to guide him across the Arizona border. The journey took two weeks, and Ramirez found his way to Las Vegas. He procured a bogus Social Security number and landed a $5.75-per-hour job at Wendy’s. He wired most of his paycheck to his family in Mexico – in 2018, immigrants in the United States remitted $68 billion to their home countries. Ramirez was a hard worker who quickly earned a raise to $6 per hour. He acknowledged that sneaking into the United States wasn’t ideal, but he didn’t know how else to support his family.

“The United States is one of the most car-dependent countries in the world, and lack of transportation can be a significant impediment to job mobility and advancement.”

Ramirez felt constantly aware of his precarious status. In Las Vegas, he drove illegally because he had no other way to get to work. He was ticketed $250 for driving without a license. After seven months at Wendy’s in Las Vegas, Ramirez heard about higher paying construction work in Washington state. He moved north and enjoyed better pay. Ramirez took advantage of a state law that allowed undocumented workers to receive driver’s licenses. In Washington, he met Yuuko, a US citizen who had been born in Japan, and the two fell in love.

In 2010, Ramirez’s mother in Mexico was in poor health, and he decided to visit her. After a few weeks, Ramirez headed back to Washington, paying a smuggler $2,000 to lead him across the Texas border. Ramirez was captured by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and detained. He and Yuuko married while Ramirez was in jail. A judge set his bond at $15,000, then lowered it to $8,000 when he learned Ramirez was recently married.

“The enforcement system is expensive to operate – and the human costs significantly outweigh the promised benefits.”

Ramirez moved back to Washington, and he had to regularly report to a local immigration office. The couple had a son in 2013. Ramirez’s stucco business thrived, and in 2013 he and Yuuko paid $275,000 for a house that needed extensive work. But the cloud of Ramirez’s immigration status remained. In early 2014, he was notified that he’d be deported at the end of that June. He was fitted with an ankle monitor. Then, a month before the deportation date, he received a letter giving him an additional 11 months.

Eduardo Lopez was just a teen when he left Mexico and headed to Ohio.

Eduardo Lopez and his young wife paid a coyote $1,600 apiece, then they walked for six hours across the desert and made their way to Phoenix. It was 1998, so the couple easily boarded a plane to Cleveland, and they found work in Ohio. Lopez began to learn English, and he landed a job in a factory. At one point, a Mexican coworker told their boss that Lopez was undocumented. The boss confronted Lopez, who admitted he was in the United States illegally. His boss told him to go back to work. By 2013, Lopez was earning $19.50 per hour at his factory job, and he would often work overtime on 12-hour shifts and seven-day weeks. His wife, Elena, stayed home with their three children. Lopez could gauge the desirability of a work shift at the factory by the demographics of the workers: On day shifts, the workers were 40% Mexican, but the night shift workers were 80% Mexican.

“He knew many of them were undocumented and suspected management knew it as well.”

In 2000, Lopez was stopped by police because the light illuminating the license plate on his car wasn’t working. The traffic stop led to an ICE report. Lopez spent five nights in jail and posted a $1,700 bond, but the money was returned a few months later. Then, in 2013, police again pulled over Lopez, this time as he was driving to work. Lopez soon entered the Byzantine world of ICE enforcement. Officials told him they had been looking for him ever since the 2000 stop, even though his attorneys had assured him the case was closed.

Lopez spent four months in jail before being released. The lost wages and fees for the immigration attorney ate into his family’s savings. His longtime employer wasn’t willing to rehire him without a Social Security number, and so Lopez took a lower paying job, making $11 per hour at a Mexican grocery store. In one potential bright spot, Lopez’s arrest raised the possibility that he might be issued a Social Security number that would allow him to return to his old job. Lopez had never heard of food stamps, but his landlord told him about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program. Because Lopez’s children were US citizens, the family was eligible for $200 a month in food aid.

“Ironically, an arrest for being undocumented often leads to the issuance of the very documents that allow an unauthorized immigrant to work legally in the United States for the first time.”

While Lopez waited for a year for a Social Security number, his former factory boss called him and offered him his previous job at his previous pay. Lopez took the job and stopped taking food stamps. He even declined a SNAP payment he was eligible for, a decision that runs counter to the unfounded stereotype that immigrants are eager to sponge off America’s social safety net.

Anabel Barron grew up in Texas, but she was born in Mexico.

Anabel Barron’s parents had eight children, but her mother would cross the border to Mexico each time she gave birth. That meant her children didn’t have the advantage of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Barron remembers making the treks across the border as a child. As they walked for miles through the desert, her mom would instruct her to hide from border patrol helicopters. Barron became pregnant at 16 and later moved to Ohio.

“Unlike criminal defendants, undocumented immigrants have no guarantee of legal representation within the US court system.”

Barron had several more children and was living quietly when in 2013, she was pulled over in a routine traffic stop. That stop led to detention by ICE and then a deportation order. Barron’s attorney won a legal status known as a “stay of removal,” and that led to a work permit and a temporary Social Security number. In the confusing world of immigration enforcement, Barron’s near-separation from her children led to a more secure spot in the United States.

With her work status assured, Barron began to drive more. She had never taken her children to the zoo or the swimming pool for fear of getting in trouble. She landed a job as a caseworker at a nonprofit, where her language skills were in demand. Still, Barron remained frightened about the future. She had four children, and she thought about what she’d do if she were deported. More chaos erupted when her ex-partner came to her house and put a gun to her head. Police arrested the man, who was deported to Mexico. Testifying against him meant Barron could be eligible for a “U visa” and therefore could remain in America permanently.

“Perhaps 50 years after she first arrived in the US as a young child, she’ll be able to apply for US citizenship.”

Barron remained terrified that she could be deported at any moment. She checked in to an ICE office for annual appointments. The meetings had gone well until March 2017, just after Donald Trump’s election as US president. She was issued an ankle monitor and told to self-deport. Her minor children were US citizens, but she couldn’t get passports for them because their father still had partial custody. Finally, in 2018, Barron was told she was in line for a U visa. Three years after receiving that visa, she can apply for a green card, and five years after that, she will be eligible for US citizenship.

Fatima Cabrera was a 17-year-old single mother in Guatemala when she decided to move to Massachusetts.

Fatima Cabrera left her baby in Guatemala, crossed the border in 2004 and took a job at a chocolate factory. She later moved on to a $12-per-hour job at a flower farm. Cabrera married and had two children in the United States. She sent money home to support her son but never saw the boy in person, as he grew to become a teenager. In 2017, Cabrera and her husband were working on a potato farm in Massachusetts. As they drove home one night, immigration officers stopped their van. Cabrera’s husband had been avoiding a long-ago deportation order, and he was sent back to Guatemala within days.

“The Trump administration rejected the notion that there are priorities for removal, and specifically encouraged officers to pursue enforcement action regardless of criminal background.”

Cabrera later was stopped again by immigration officers, just after she dropped her children off at school. She was fitted with an ankle monitor and released. Cabrera became immersed in an arbitrary and capricious system. John Morton, the ICE director under President Barack Obama, had prioritized deportations of criminals, terrorists and other dangerous people who were in America illegally. Immigrants without criminal records and with families in the United States were at low risk of deportation.

“A finding of obvious racial profiling in the enforcement process is not enough to protect an unauthorized immigrant from deportation.”

However, under Obama, nonviolent infractions such as traffic offenses or immigration offenses were considered crimes, and those who had committed them were eligible for removal. And under Trump, removing all undocumented immigrants became the priority. Enforcement focused on male immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In 2018, 55% of those deported were from Mexico, and 37% were born in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.

About the Authors

Tara Watson is a professor of economics at Williams College and a coeditor of the Journal of Human Resources. Kalee Thompson is a journalist and senior editor at Wirecutter.


I’d be happy to provide a review of the book “The Border Within: The Economics of Immigration in an Age of Fear” by Kalee Thompson and Tara Watson.

Firstly, the book provides a comprehensive overview of the economic aspects of immigration in the current era of fear and nationalism. The authors successfully argue that immigration is not a zero-sum game, where the presence of immigrants does not automatically lead to a loss for native-born workers. Instead, they demonstrate how immigration can lead to economic growth, innovation, and a more diverse workforce.

One of the book’s major strengths is its ability to break down complex economic concepts into easily digestible language, making it accessible to a wide range of readers. The authors use clear and concise language to explain topics such as the labor market, wage stagnation, and the fiscal impact of immigration. They also provide engaging examples and case studies to illustrate their points, making the book feel more like a conversation with an expert than a dry economic treatise.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part provides a historical context for immigration and its role in shaping the US economy. The authors highlight how immigration has always been a key driver of economic growth and how it has helped to address labor shortages in various industries. They also discuss the shift in public opinion towards immigration, particularly after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished quotas based on national origin.

The second part of the book focuses on the economics of immigration, including the impact on wages, employment, and productivity. The authors present evidence that immigration has a positive effect on the labor market, including boosting productivity and reducing the cost of goods and services. They also address common misconceptions about immigration, such as the idea that immigrants are taking jobs away from native-born workers. Instead, they show that immigrants often fill labor gaps in industries such as agriculture, construction, and healthcare, which can lead to increased productivity and economic growth.

The third part of the book examines the role of immigration in shaping the US population and its demographics. The authors discuss how immigration has contributed to the country’s diversity and how it has helped to address issues such as an aging population and declining birth rates. They also address the issue of “chain migration,” where immigrants bring their families to the US, and argue that this phenomenon has a positive impact on the economy.

The final part of the book offers policy recommendations for a more inclusive and efficient immigration system. The authors argue that the current system is broken and that it needs to be reformed to address issues such as the backlog of asylum cases, the lack of a guest worker program, and the need for a more streamlined process for high-skilled workers. They also suggest ways to address the root causes of migration, such as poverty and violence, in the countries of origin.

In conclusion, “The Border Within” provides a timely and much-needed analysis of the economics of immigration in the current political climate. The authors present a balanced and well-researched argument that immigration is not a threat to the US economy, but rather a vital component of its growth and success. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of immigration and its role in shaping the US economy and society.

I would give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. The book is well-written, well-researched, and provides a comprehensive overview of the economics of immigration. The authors provide engaging examples and case studies, making the book accessible to a wide range of readers. The only improvement I would suggest is a more detailed analysis of the impact of immigration on specific industries, such as technology and healthcare. Overall, “The Border Within” is a valuable contribution to the discussion on immigration and is a must-read for anyone interested in this important topic.

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