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The Mexico Factor in US Immigration Reform
By Demetrios G. Papademetriou
Migration Policy Institute
From the beginning of his administration, Mexico's President Vicente Fox has prioritized two objectives: obtaining legal status for Mexicans living without authorization in the United States and securing legal access to the US labor market for Mexican citizens.. For the first eight months of 2001, repeated bilateral meetings on migration held promise for tangible advances in the US-Mexico migration dialogue. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11 disrupted those talks. Until recently, the United States had declined to re-ignite substantive conversation on migration, preferring to focus on border issues and address those primarily in the context of its security needs.
On January 7, 2004, however, US President George W. Bush outlined a set of principles for dealing with illegal immigration to the United States. Although President Bush briefed his Mexican counterpart prior to the announcement, the White House proposal is decidedly unilateral in spirit, as are all of the various proposals currently before Congress. Numbers and geography, however, mean that any attempt to manage unauthorized immigration to the United States must keep Mexico and Mexicans close in mind.
With an estimated 5.3 million Mexicans living without authorization in the United States, Mexico is the source of at least three-fifths of the United States' undocumented immigrants. In the last regularization of unauthorized immigrants, conducted under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), about two million Mexicans received permanent lawful resident status—about 75 percent of total legalizations. Since then, Mexican immigration to the US has gained considerable momentum: US employers have become even more accustomed to recruiting and employing Mexican workers, Mexicans already living in the United States have become even more embedded in US society, the social and labor recruitment networks that help migrants come northward have become even more efficient, and Mexicans of all legal statuses comprise increasingly large pluralities of workers in low-skill, low value-added economic sectors.
Beyond the numbers, however, many of the assumptions that are now driving US thinking about immigration reform are directly shaped, even inspired, by migration from Mexico. For example, every major immigration reform proposal cites, more or less directly, restoring the "circularity" of earlier migration patterns as a key goal of immigration reform. Migrants from all countries often return to their source country from the US and, increasingly, they may make this two-way trip repeatedly. Mexico's geographic proximity to the United States, however, has given it a history of circular migration that, until recently, had been far longer and stronger than any other nation's.
Furthermore, it is Mexico's (and, to a lesser extent, Central America's) tradition of circular migration that can be most accurately described as having been "disrupted" by the US policies of the past 20 years. Stepped-up enforcement on the United States' southern border has both preceded and been more intense than changes in enforcement of entry by air and sea. This, in turn, has contributed to longer stays by unauthorized Mexican immigrants and increased migration of women, who enter either to join their husbands or to work in the increasing number of jobs available for women in the underground economy. Children are sometimes brought along as part of these family units. At this point, the habit of longer—essentially permanent—stays may not respond quickly to policy changes. In sum the validity of assumptions about the nature of Mexican migration and its place in the US economy and society will ultimately determine the success of any US reform effort.
A combination of factors makes Mexico the ideal candidate for a bilateral approach to migration management. First, Mexico contributes a significant majority of the US's total unauthorized population, making it a logical major, and possibly first, partner in a bilateral approach. Secondly, the United States and Mexico already have a well established relationship—they are partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), jointly manage many issues that relate to border security and law enforcement, and have launched a joint program to promote economic development in Mexico called the Partnership for Prosperity. Another aspect of this relationship is current negotiations regarding the repatriation of apprehended unauthorized migrants to locations nearer to their hometowns, with the goal of discouraging repeated high-risk crossings and people smuggling. Finally, political calculations in both countries make thinking bilaterally about migration particularly attractive: in few other countries is migration as potent a domestic political issue as in Mexico, and Mexican-Americans make up the largest part of the burgeoning Latino electorate in the United States. All of these factors make Mexico the natural place to launch an open-ended conversation on migration, and the place where whatever immigration legislation that emerges will be tested first, and most powerfully.
Key Elements of a Reform Package
Almost regardless of the level of bilateral coordination, any immigration reform package that aims for long-term success must deal with three very difficult issues more or less simultaneously: accounting for the current immigrant population; preventing future unauthorized immigration to the fullest extent possible; and providing adequate legal means for needed immigrants to enter the United States. The goal of such an integrated approach is stability; as such, it might be conceptualized as a "three-legged stool" that will topple if any one leg is removed.
Leg One: Accounting for the current immigrant population.
The domestic security agenda established after September 11 has cast the longstanding and growing unauthorized population in the US in a new light—as a potential hiding place for terrorists. Analysts talk about the challenges of finding the "needle in the haystack" and hotly debate the appropriate and constitutionally sound ways to make that haystack significantly smaller. Ideas have included registration, deportation (focusing initially on criminal immigrants), and increased enforcement measures internally and at the border.
Today's "haystack" is composed of nearly 10 million people who are living, working, and sometimes studying in American communities. A quick calculation shows that, even under the most favorable assumptions, a strategy designed to bring the unauthorized population to publicly acceptable levels that utilized only enforcement and deportation would require tens of billions of dollars, decades of time, and significant damage to the nation's concept of civil and other rights. It would also require equally heroic assumptions about the United States' ability to keep new would-be illegal entrants out.
Another option, a national registration of unauthorized immigrants, has also gained support among members of Congress. Such a registration program would be combined with a meaningful promise for some sort of regularization that would allow unauthorized immigrants to remain in the country. Under the plan described by President Bush, the permission to stay legally would be contingent upon employment and initially last for three years, with the possibility of renewal.
Many of the assumptions that are now driving the formation of US immigration
policy are directly inspired by migration from Mexico
Such strategies pose considerable challenges. The utility of such an effort depends greatly on the level of participation: a regularization effort that leaves millions of people unregistered still leaves a considerable security problem. For this reason, policymakers should consider whether their regularization proposals offer enough incentives so that most immigrants will register. A regularization program that allows only temporary stays is not likely to prove a sufficient inducement for many immigrants, who may intend to stay permanently, or who fear that registration could be used against them in other ways.
The level of participation in the regularization program will also influence the success of broader efforts to control illegal immigration. When Congress enacted IRCA in 1986, it thought of regularization only as an amnesty, and extended its pardon to those who could demonstrate that they had been in the United States "continuously" since before January 1, 1982. When the law was finally implemented in November, 1986, the previous five years of illegal arrivals did not qualify for regularization. At the same time, however, they had little incentive to leave (see related article).
These three million still-unauthorized immigrants simply burrowed into US communities, continuing to do essential work, but in an even more unprotected legal environment. They continued to reunify with their families legally or illegally, build new families, and have American children. Because IRCA left millions of unauthorized residents living and working in the US, the regularization never established a "clean slate" from which to launch its enforcement provisions, and these unauthorized immigrants formed part of the nucleus for the even more spectacular growth of the unauthorized population in the 1990s.
Many unauthorized immigrants have spent years in the country, are working at permanent jobs, and are parents of citizen children. At the end of the last fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security had more than 1.2 million pending green card applications. For most of these people, "restoring circularity" may not be a goal that will move them to register in a program like that proposed by the White House; they will need a real opportunity to obtain legal permanent residency instead. If offered regularization without the prospect of permanent residency, many may simply choose to remain in the United States at the end of their allotted time, rather than return home after a decade of absence.
To alleviate the pressures that encourage undocumented immigrants to remain and lapse into an illegal status, or to not register and regularize in the first place, policy makers may consider giving immigrants who have received temporary legal status the chance to earn permanent status by demonstrating characteristics such as a steady job, knowledge of English, payment of taxes, or a family tie to a US citizen, among others. This could provide a way for unauthorized immigrants with strong ties to the United States to stay legally without preempting "normal" immigration channels.
Leg Two: Improving immigration enforcement policies.
Legalization of today's undocumented cannot be considered successful if unauthorized immigration is not controlled following any regularization process. Effective enforcement will require not only more enforcement resources, but also a rethinking of enforcement strategies.
The US-Mexico border provides an important example. Beginning in the mid-1990s, spending on border enforcement was increased dramatically and the Border Patrol adopted a new strategy of "concentrated border enforcement." These efforts paid off, in some respects: crossing successfully became far more difficult and the fees charged by smugglers rose. Yet, once over the line, unauthorized immigrants found jobs easily and faced little threat of apprehension. As a result, many migrants continued to cross, but their passage became more risky and costly. The number of deaths along the border increased, and migrants already in the United States decided to postpone trips back home because repeated back-and-forth journeys became prohibitively expensive and risky. Enhanced border enforcement has effectively "locked people in," rather than keeping them out.
Border enforcement remains a necessary, but far from sufficient, part of a strategy for controlling unauthorized immigration. The dominant paradigm of interior enforcement, which until recently was based almost exclusively on penalizing employers for hiring illegal workers, has never worked well or received adequate resources. Employers have only been penalized for "knowingly" hiring an unauthorized worker, and, because of anti-discrimination laws, are prohibited from questioning the document that establishes their employee's status if it looks authentic. As a result, even when employers scrupulously comply with the law, falsified documents allow the unauthorized to work.
New efforts to increase interior enforcement will require resources, a review of employer sanctions that re-examines US enforcement methods from the ground up, and serious consideration of alternatives. As a strategy develops with regard to a temporary work visa program, enforcement of labor standards and other workplace protections will also become especially important on the enforcement agenda (see related article).
Leg Three: Providing adequate legal means to enter the United States.
However strong or well-conceived enforcement efforts come to be, they will face an uphill battle unless the number of available visas expands. This expansion will allow would-be migrants a reasonable chance of migrating legally to work, to join family members, or both, while giving employers access to legal foreign workers. The current immigration adjudications backlog, however, stands at more than 6.3 million applications. This situation is forcing even people who are already legally entitled to migrate and have applications pending, sometimes often for years, to enter or remain illegally. Creating a system in which immigrants will "wait for their turn" will require the administrative resources needed to clear this backlog as well as an increase in the quotas for the number of visas issued.
Unauthorized immigrants, including the overwhelming majority of Mexicans, are largely employed in low-wage, low value-added jobs, mostly but not exclusively in the service sector, making these positions a priority for additional visas. As discussed above, a temporary work visa will be an appropriate solution for some of these entries. It is important, however, that such short-term visas be coupled with tough but fair enforcement, as well as imaginative financial incentives to return. These incentives will not work in every case; some workers will still want to stay and some employers will still want to keep their most reliable employees. Creating a clear, if demanding, path to permanent residency is one way to satisfy these people. These are the kinds of situations that make it politically and socially complicated to implement a temporary worker program designed to limit unauthorized immigration.
A regularization effort that leaves millions of people unregistered still
leaves a considerable security problem
While more work visas are important, family reunification remains a core value of the American immigration system, is responsible for much of the immigration backlog, and plays a critical role in fostering immigrant integration. These factors make visas for family reunification perhaps the greatest priority. Tough political choices will have to be made in this regard, but keeping immediate families together or reuniting them is an inescapable policy goal, both morally and in terms of smart migration management.
Assessing Reform Proposals
These three "legs" set standards for judging the "completeness" of any reform proposal aimed at controlling illegal immigration while achieving US social goals and economic priorities. The proposal articulated by the White House, (see related article) for example, would provide extensive opportunities for Mexicans and other foreigners to be temporarily employed in the United States, dealing, in part, with the need for expanded legal immigration pathways.
The White House proposals, however, are particularly oblique when it comes to dealing with the regularization of unauthorized immigrants who want to stay permanently. Presumably, some will be dealt with through new permanent visas, but the president has attached no specific numbers to his call for more such visas. In addition, the president's proposal, like every other current immigration reform proposal of note, lacks new ideas for enforcement. Nonetheless, the proposal has opened a much-needed debate on the topic, and future proposals may deal more comprehensively with the issues.
Returning to Mexico: Prospects for Bilateral Cooperation
At the moment, debate in the United States has largely focused on unilateral approaches to immigration control, including much-needed changes to "put our own house in order." While some of the dimensions of a new approach to immigration would involve nationals of all countries, cooperation with Mexico continues to have distinct advantages.
The most obvious way in which true, organic cooperation with Mexico can help the United States is with the management of their common border. Significant efforts to cooperate in border management are already underway, but can be expanded and deepened. Tying this cooperation to reforms in US immigration policy may be the best way to give the Mexican government the political cover they need to make full and active cooperation at the border possible.
The United States should also not underestimate the difficulty of administering large-scale immigration programs. Such programs have often managed to be both administratively onerous and vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Here, Mexico has much to offer. Its public records can be a valuable resource for verifying the backgrounds and eligibility of candidates for legalization and temporary work programs. Given proper incentives, the Mexican government could also play a more direct role in administering a temporary worker program.
Cooperation on this front will require that both the United States and Mexico come to view stable immigration reform as a goal that will bring enormous benefits to both parties. In both countries, this transformation is well under way, but as yet incomplete. In the United States, immigration reform is finally a topic of broad national debate, and the language used to discuss the issue in mainstream political circles has shifted from "illegal aliens" to "willing workers." Mexico, for its part, appears to understand that policies that may offer it the most immediate economic and political rewards will not pay off in the long term unless supported by other reforms, and that working with the United States to control the border is a necessary prerequisite to progress. So far, despite welcoming Washington's interest in temporary legalizations and temporary work visas, the Fox administration continues to quietly call for more expansive reform (see related article).
As the discussion over immigration reform moves forward in the United States, Mexico will continue to hold a prominent place both in the debates and the solutions. The extensive and complex migration relationship that has evolved between the two countries in the last 100 years may be the greatest obstacle facing immigration reform in the United States; their deepening and broadening political and economic relationship, however, may offer the best chance of surmounting this challenge.
Demetrios G. Papademetriou is President of the Migration Policy Institute.
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