E.g., 04/17/2014
E.g., 04/17/2014

From Traitors to Heroes: 100 Years of Mexican Migration Policies

Adjust Font    |    Print    |    RSS    |    Reprint Permission

From Traitors to Heroes: 100 Years of Mexican Migration Policies

When U.S. President George W. Bush proposed immigration reforms in his country, one of the audiences he was addressing was Mexican policymakers. The Bush blueprint spurred them to re-examine their emigration policy, and ultimately won the support of Mexico's President Vicente Fox. In the long term, however, it is not clear whether the latest proposal will heal the U.S.-Mexico relationship on migration or re-open old wounds. A historical perspective on the Bush proposal gives clues as to how this new chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations will unfold.

Much is at stake for Mexico, perhaps even more than is recognized. Despite the fact that one out of every 10 Mexicans lives in the United States, Mexico still does not see itself as a country of emigrants. This absence of national consciousness has to do with a century-long tradition of going to work "up north," coupled with Mexico's virtual abandonment of both migration policies and migrants in certain decades.

Even when deliberately crafted and targeted, Mexico's emigration policies, especially those related to the United States, have historically been hobbled by internal contradictions. While consistently confirming Mexicans' constitutional right to "free transit," these policies have nevertheless sought to dissuade, balance, channel, administer, or encourage migratory flows according a given era's political, economic, and demographic forces.

As a result, over the course of 100 years, Mexican policymaking has witnessed five phases: the early 20th century policies aimed at dissuading Mexicans from migrating; a policy of negotiation during and after World War II; the "laissez-faire" approach of the 1970s and 1980s; the "damage control" policy of the 1990s; and the current stage of proposals and talks that can be characterized as one of "shared responsibility." What follows is a brief examination of each phase that casts light on current U.S.-Mexico relations around migration and the overall direction of Mexican migration policy.

Traitors or Workers?

From the late 19th century to 1940, Mexico fostered a policy of attracting home its citizens who remained in the territories "annexed" by the United States (California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah) after a war in 1846 launched by the administration of U.S. President James Polk. At the same time, Mexico welcomed back those affected by the United States' massive expulsions of migrants during the economic crises of 1907, 1921, 1929, and 1939.

In this period, emigrants were often considered "traitors" to the homeland for working for and therefore strengthening their northern neighbor. A policy of dissuasion discouraged emigrants from answering the calls of U.S. labor recruiters. Mexico saw itself as a nation of immeasurable riches where progress required the entire population, including immigrants from abroad. This policy reflected a demographic fact: at the turn of the 20th century, Mexico's population was just 13.6 million.

By 1940, however, President Lazaro Cardenas' nationalist politics had strengthened Mexico, and World War II had drained enough U.S. manpower to force Washington to look abroad for recruits to support a wartime economy. Bilateral talks resulted in a special program that allowed migrant laborers to work on U.S. farms and railroads. Regulated by both governments, this agreement ended the system of private labor recruitment and introduced a new phase of negotiation. After having tried to dissuade Mexicans from migrating for half a century, the U.S. government now began to organize and channel huge numbers of migrant workers—braceros—across its border.

This phase, which lasted 22 years, molded a unique type of migrant: young, male temporary laborers from rural areas who went to live in the U.S. and work in agriculture. Through tense, arduous annual negotiations, the "Bracero" program established a "binational collective labor agreement" that mobilized more than five million temporary workers.

In 1964, Washington cancelled this program unilaterally, and a new stage emerged. The Mexican government insisted on renewing the program. The U.S. government was not interested because migrant laborers continued to arrive without papers and outside of negotiated agreements. Thus began the era of undocumented migration by "irregular" migrants who worked temporarily under the threat of deportation. The border became the primary filter and control point regulating the flow of migrants according to the needs of U.S. labor markets. The Mexican side was a "no-man's land" where criminals and human traffickers operated freely.

Because the Mexican government lacked a coordinated strategy to deal with this situation, it chose to do nothing and wait for developments on the other side of the border. This has been called the period of "no policy politics." Mexico's government simply ignored the matter and abandoned its migrants. In this phase, laissez-faire attitudes and policies reigned, though both governments would pay the costs 20 years later.

The Cost of Laissez Faire

On the U.S. side of the border, 20 years later, lawmakers faced a public convinced that the government had "lost control of the border." A grassroots right-wing anti-immigrant campaign to pressure U.S. lawmakers followed. To regulate what had become an unmanageable or at least politically costly situation, a new law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), was passed in 1986. It radically modified the traditional pattern of back-and-forth migration by men by legalizing 2.3 million Mexican immigrants and paving the way for even more to enter the U.S. through a family reunification program.

The Mexican government felt the political repercussions of the laizzez-faire period two years later. The 1988 elections highlighted the growing estrangement between the official Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), which had monopolized the government for 70 years, and its citizens abroad. The elections of 1988 and the government's credibility were questioned by broad sectors of the diaspora community. At the same time, Mexicans at home viewed their migrant compatriots as traitors for boycotting Independence Day festivals in Los Angeles and other places, as signs of protest.

During the next stage, which took place roughly following 1990, the Mexican government engaged in a series of damage-control policies. The PRI regime under President Carlos Salinas was determined to negotiate a free trade agreement with the U.S., and could ill afford to see the Mexican diaspora lining up with the U.S. opposition to the deal. This phase included no migration policy initiatives, because Washington excluded all such discussion from the commercial talks surrounding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Despite this tacit agreement to keep migration off the table, the Mexican government made progress on internal political means of improving the attention, services, protection, and reception of Mexicans who returned from the United States. The Mexican government's desire to recover emigrants' trust and return them to the corporatist political fold led it to implement various programs over the next two decades, including random spot checks to reduce corruption by customs officials at the airport, the Paisano Program to facilitate migrants' return to their home communities; the Mexican Communities Abroad Program that fostered contact between migrants and their hometowns; the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (URESA) program that used legal means to pressure "non-complying" emigrants to contribute to the sustenance of their families; and the 3 x 1 Community Investment Program based on the joint participation of municipal, state, and federal governments in maximizing the positive effects of social remittances. Important political changes were achieved, including dual nationality—technically, a "no loss of Mexican nationality" rule for those who acquired U.S. citizenship—and a constitutional amendment that would allow (in an ever more remote future) Mexicans abroad to vote in national elections.

Democracy and Change

A new phase in Mexico's emigration policy came in 2000 with the toppling of the PRI and the transition to democracy under President Vicente Fox of the Partido Accion Nacional (National Action Part, PAN). Fox's government designed a detailed, aggressive policy based on principles that saw the migration question over the long term and proposed talks based on "shared responsibility." The migration relationship held high priority in Fox's policies (both internal and external), because he saw emigrants as heroes who were forced to leave their country and nevertheless contributed $12 billion to its economy in 2002. For its part, the United States saw Mexico's new democratization as an opportunity to calm public dissatisfaction with its policies and cultivate a valued trade partner.

The commitment of President Fox to the immigration issue and the amicable relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush allowed the two nations to put the long phase of mutual accusations behind them. The problem was to be approached comprehensively because of its complexity, taking into account both migrants currently living and working in the U.S. as temporary laborers and those who might do so in the future.

These negotiations went well until September 11, 2001, when everything fell apart. Overnight, U.S. security concerns seemed to block any possibilities for a migration agreement. The migratory agreement negotiations suddenly became a game of mirrors, as distant possibilities seemed to emerge only to disappear again. The talks had never overcome the traditional context of "asymmetrical power" that favored the United States. Despite Mexico's continuing migration concerns and desire for a comprehensive agreement, the negotiations that followed September 11 were reframed in terms of border security for the United States.

The collapse of negotiations did not, however, lead Fox to abandon his drive for a new migration relationship. Instead, the government circumvented U.S. unresponsiveness at the international level by advancing internal policies. These included supporting voting rights for Mexicans abroad and reviving the matricula consular (see related article), an identification card issued to Mexicans in the U.S. by their consulates. This card has proven to be an invaluable tool for undocumented migrants, who can now open bank accounts, identify themselves to the police, and obtain a driver's license. These advances required direct talks with banks, local police, and state governments, but results have far exceeded expectations. Despite some opposition from conservative "law and order" elements of the U.S. Republican Party, the matricula is now established and recognized by the U.S. Department of Treasury, after public consultations in which the support of migrants and their organizations was crucial.

Looking Forward

Mexico is progressing with Washington on important agendas through unilateral actions and piecemeal negotiations; elements that will be fundamental to Mexico's new migration policies. The maneuvering room for unilateral politicking by Mexico is greater than anyone thought, especially at a time when everything seemed to indicate that the U.S. would take a unilateral approach to migration.

In September 2003, two proposals were presented to Congress: the Border Security and Migration Law (HR2899), proposed by three Republican senators from Arizona, and a bipartisan proposal concerning agricultural workers (AgJobs).

The first bill includes a program to legalize undocumented workers residing in the U.S. and a proposal to allow a regular legal flow of additional temporary laborers, while the second outlines an agricultural workers program. These two initiatives ended the "mirror game," as it became clear that no migratory agreement was possible.

What is novel here is the support of social organizations and migrant groups. For the first time on the U.S. political stage, documented and undocumented migrants are involved in lobbying. A broad coalition of migrant organizations led by the Asociación Tepeyac is supporting proposal HR2899, while the peasant union once led by César Chávez —the United Farm Workers— is pushing the bipartisan initiative. A new political scene dynamic has emerged in which migrant organizations look to the Mexican government for help, a government that, in turn, needs their support. More importantly, migrants and their organizations now have influence in the internal politics of Mexico and the United States. Migrants have their own agenda and represent a new political actor on the binational stage.

With Bush's January 2004 announcement of proposed immigration reforms, the issue is back on the U.S. agenda. Although this is in no small measure because of Mexican persistence, it is also a function of the Republican Party to court traditionally Democratic Latino voters during an election year. In terms of the legislative efforts in Congress, the AgJobs proposal seems to have gained momentum as a possible "first step" towards achieving the Bush goals, and discussion continues on HR2899.

However, this is not a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States. Instead, the proposal envisioned by Bush would take shape from an independent and sovereign decision by the U.S. Congress. The basic tenets of the Mexican position—shared responsibility and a comprehensive resolution—are not taken into consideration. It appears that significant negotiations would be required to bridge the gap between these two perspectives on a crucially important issue for the United States and Mexico.