Mexico-United States Migration: A Long Way To Go
By Gustavo Mohar
March 1, 2004
On the morning of September 7, 2001, Mexico's President Vicente Fox attended an early breakfast at the United States Congress. He had been invited by the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties to discuss his audacious proposal to recast the immigration regime between Mexico and the United States. It was the last official event during the first state visit hosted by the recently elected president of the United States, George W. Bush. As he left Capitol Hill, 24 key lawmakers asked to be photographed with Fox. In the wake of the meetings, Bush assessed ties to Mexico as "the most important relationship the United States has with any country in the world."
Four days later, 19 terrorists triggered what The Economist described as "a seismic change in the international scene," a new era with unforeseeable consequences for both the United States and the international community as a whole. The ability of the terrorists to elude the controls, regulations, and scrutiny aimed at foreigners arriving in the United States sparked a re-conceptualization of how to protect US borders and prevent the entry of any foreign nationals who would pose a new threat.
One of the many casualties of this new paradigm was the migration dialogue launched seven months before, when the two presidents met in Mexico for the first time since their respective elections. On that occasion, President Fox took the initiative of proposing bilateral negotiations to establish a migration regime more consistent with the US-Mexico reality. The new regime would take into consideration the status of the two states as neighbors, the economic partnership embodied in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the strategic importance of Mexico, and the long and deep history of Mexicans traveling to the United States to settle or work temporarily.
From February 21 to September 7, 2001, an unprecedented dialogue occurred between officials from Mexico and the United States. For the first time since the halt to the 1942-1964 "Bracero" program, which had imported Mexican workers to meet US labor needs, designated teams from the two governments met to discuss a comprehensive agreed agenda, analyze, and begin to understand each other's perspectives on how to responsibly manage the movement of nationals between their territories.
From the beginning of the negotiations, Mexico insisted that if a new migratory regime was to be established with the United States, it had to meet the needs of the Mexican population already settled in the United States. At the same time, it would have to create a system to allow future flows of temporary workers to travel in a legal, safe, and orderly manner.
At the end of their conversations, presidents Fox and Bush issued a joint statement reflecting the prevailing spirit in those days, and summarizing the progress made in previous months. According to the text of the statement, the two sides:
"...renewed their commitment to forging a new and realistic approach to migration to ensure it is safe, orderly, legal and dignified, and agreed on the framework within which this ongoing effort is based. This includes: matching willing workers with willing employees; serving the social and economic needs of both countries; respecting the human dignity of all migrants, regardless of their status; recognizing the contribution migrants make to enrich both societies; taking shared responsibility for ensuring migration takes place through safe and legal channels."
Furthermore, the two presidents "stressed their commitment to continue the discussions, instructing the high-level working group to reach mutually satisfactory results on border safety, a temporary workers program and the status of undocumented Mexicans in the United States" and "requested that the working group provide proposals with to respect these issues as soon as possible." The two presidents recognized that "this is an extraordinarily challenging area of public policy," one that "is critical to address…in a timely manner and with appropriate thoroughness and depth."
Home Front Debates
The high-level discussions also launched a debate among domestic political forces, the media, and the public in the United States. The Mexican and Mexican-American communities, unions, activists, and pro-immigration groups claimed that any deal should include legalization of the four to five million undocumented Mexicans already residing in the United States. Some pro-immigrant groups also demanded that any immigration reform should include not only Mexicans, but also other nationalities that face the same effects from a dysfunctional migration regime.
On the other side, conservative Republicans opposed any type of "amnesty," arguing that it would only generate additional undocumented migrants and unfairly "reward" those who had violated the law. Close advisors to Bush cautioned that such a proposal could alienate conservatives, who had always opposed any type of amnesty.
In Mexico, President Fox found that his initiative gained overwhelming support from leaders and legislators from all political parties, state governors, unions, the media, and intellectuals. It is difficult to identify any other issue during Fox's tenure that gained such an absolute consensus. Nonetheless, this support had an implicit expectation that Fox would obtain results, and more critically, threatened an equivalent political cost if he did not succeed.
For the first time in many years, the president's initiative with his US counterpart sparked in Mexico a well-deserved collective interest and re-evaluation of the role played by migrants. This interest embraced not only migrants' role in Mexico's economy, via the billions of dollars they send back home, but also of their influence in local, state, and national politics. For the first time in decades, social and political actors in Mexico began to realize the need for a "real" migration policy.
Post-September 11 Breakdown
Despite the momentum on both sides for a comprehensive agreement, talks ground to a halt after September 11 because of overriding US security concerns. Several months of a near-total stalemate followed, during which opponents to an agreement with Mexico inside the Bush administration strengthened their stance. In November 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the political conditions did not exist in the United States to advance the migration discussions. To the frustration of some Mexican officials, Powell asked for "patience."
Complicating this already somber scenario, Mexico and the US disagreed at the United Nations regarding the way to deal with the war on Iraq. Mexico's traditional foreign policy principle of promoting dialogue and peaceful means to resolve international conflicts did not sit well with the Bush administration, which was "disappointed" by Mexico's refusal to support the war to oust Saddam Hussein.
These post-September 11 political obstacles, however, could not permanently shift Washington's attention away from Mexico's key role in US foreign policy. This importance came to be expressed through a security lens. In fact, the collaborative strategy demanded to make borders an effective snare for international terrorists required further measures that more closely knit the US-Mexico relationship.
To reach this goal, the Mexico-United States Border Partnership Action Plan was signed in March 2002 to create a "smart border." The plan includes 22 points of agreement divided into three main areas: infrastructure, secure flow of people, and secure flow of goods. Bilateral cooperation in this area has been extremely successful. New institutional links have been established, setting a shared path for efforts to enhance the integrity of the border and reinforce the national security of both nations (see related article).
Despite this closer collaboration on the security front, the larger question of migration vanished from the bilateral agenda for several months. In the US Congress, migration-related initiatives did not find enough interest and support to move ahead. At the end of 2003, there was a general feeling that any substantive migration measures should wait on the results of the US presidential elections and clearer signals of an economic recovery.
President's Bush Proposal
In the midst of this waiting period, to the surprise of many, President Bush announced a new set of principles to guide future US immigration reform. Founded on a temporary worker program that would match "willing employers with willing workers," he said, the reforms would enhance US security by identifying millions of undocumented immigrants, while preventing future exploitation of immigrant workers and blocking human smuggling. In short, the president said in his January 2004 announcement of the proposal, the US immigration system is "broken" and needs to be fixed.
As expected, Bush's proposal immediately produced strong reactions, even within his own party. Democratic legislators introduced comprehensive reform initiatives setting clearer paths for the undocumented population to reach "earned adjustment" to permanent residence status. Conservative Republicans criticized the president for proposing what they characterized as an "amnesty."
Bush's proposal received a mixed, if mostly positive, response in Mexico. On the one hand, the initial reaction of some created false expectations about the imminence of a comprehensive agreement along the lines hoped for before September 11. On the other, the more wary saw only an electoral maneuver behind the proposal, refusing to give Bush even the benefit of the doubt. For his part, President Fox claimed credit, saying the proposal was the result of Mexico's struggle. A few days later, in a more guarded tone, he welcomed the initiative, but cautioned that it was not enough and that Mexico would still insist on an "integral solution."
President Fox has committed to the Mexican community in the US to work on their behalf to protect them and to achieve their full legal recognition. In this light, it would be inconsistent for the president to support US legislation that did not include a clear path for this population to "earn" legal resident status in the United States.
From Unilateralism to Shared Responsibility?
Despite the fact that US immigration policy has historically been considered a purely domestic issue, driven by its own economic and political interests, Mexico has suggested since the beginning of negotiations that "shared responsibility" constitutes the core element of a real solution.
The absence of such a bilateral approach in President Bush's statement partially explains why previous US immigration reforms have not had the intended effects. Immigration, by definition an international phenomenon, is in the Mexican view only manageable with all the parties involved.
NAFTA set the rules for bilateral trade and not only triggered a dramatic change in the structure and orientation of Mexico's economy, but also exposed long-established weaknesses and overdue reforms. These included an obsolete (and sometimes corrupt) judiciary system, excessive red tape, inadequate infrastructure, a lack of technical and managerial skills, and an overprotected private sector unable to compete in an open, international environment.
A truly bilateral migration agreement with the United States would produce similar effects in terms of exposing the need for long-postponed decisions regarding the way Mexico approaches its responsibilities as a country of transit, origin, and destination of migration flows. In exchange for a comprehensive deal with the US, Mexico will have to consider, among other things:
It is in the long-term interests of both Mexico and the United States to have a prosperous and secure region, free of the threats of organized crime and terrorism. Migration from Mexico will continue because of deeply rooted structural, economic, labor, and social interdependencies. Recognizing these realities through a new bilateral regime that gives order, safety, and legality to these flows is in the interest of both countries.
- Cooperating in the matching of "willing workers" with "willing employers" in accordance with the criteria and procedures established by both countries. This would include a worker certification program to ensure technical skills and lack of any criminal background.
- Preventing the illegal hiring of potential Mexican migrants as happens today, through an abusive system of "contracting" workers through middlemen, traffickers, and employers' agents, in violation of Mexican and US labor and immigration laws. Under this "system," workers are charged unjustifiable fees and often exposed to severe risks.
- Creating incentives and disincentives in order to induce migrants who subscribe to the program to follow the rules, including the obligation to return to Mexico.
- Bringing order to the labor force of both countries. An agreement on labor mobility will allow the US and Mexican workforces to evolve in an orderly manner in the years ahead, as demographic trends in both countries adjust the supply-demand equation. Mexico's population is on a declining path, which implies lower migration pressures in the long term; this coincides with an aging US population with an exponential growth in "Baby Boom" generation retirement that will require an increased foreign labor supply.
- Incorporating specific social and regional development policies directed at the communities of origin of migrant workers.
- Designing and implementing a long-term strategy with regard to managing Mexico's own southern border, which faces increasing flows of undocumented Central Americans and third-country nationals looking to reach the US through Mexico.
Today more than ever in a turbulent history of mutual distrust, the US should reassess its traditional neglect of the importance of its southern neighbor. Tightening border controls is not enough, and certainly not safe enough. Social and political stability in Mexico is necessary for US security requirements; prosperity and sound economic development are also necessary. The US should be more actively engaged in promoting them by supporting Mexico's development to induce more of Mexico's potential migrants to remain in their hometowns and earned a decent living, instead of moving north.
Gustavo Mohar is a consultant and former Chief Negotiator for Migration Affairs at the Mexican Foreign Ministry.
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