Foreign Affairs en Español
The US-Mexico Immigration Relationship: Operating in a New Context
Setting the Stage
What a difference one day makes. Prior to September 11, the U.S. economy, while slowing, continued to register low, if rising unemployment, and employers in a variety of service sector industries spoke of worker shortages. Presidents Bush and Fox already had met face to face five times, including a summit on September 5-6, 2001, where they discussed a set of principles and reviewed the recommendations of their working group on migration, chaired by senior Cabinet officials from both countries. Specifics of any proposed plan were assumed to include an earned regularization of status for qualified undocumented Mexicans already in the country and some sort of new non-agricultural temporary worker program. Furthermore, in a dramatic shift from the early 1990's, the country's attitude toward immigrants was rather favorable. In fact, in as odd a partnership as any, both the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the Executive Committee of the AFL-CIO publicly attributed to immigrants an important role in building the strong economic growth of the past decade. Furthermore, the positions of a diverse coalition of business, religious, and advocacy groups coalesced around the outlines of a plan to address both current and future worker shortages and the status of undocumented migrants in the United States.
A mere two months later, the United States is waging a war against terrorism, with troops overseas and fears of bioterrorism the consequences of an unprecedented and horrific attack on U.S. soil. The economy, while not crippled, has taken a hard hit, with service sectors such as tourism decimated and with hundreds of thousands of jobs eliminated nationwide (a general slowdown of the economy began last spring). Many of these service sectors jobs had been held by immigrants, including Mexicans. This economic downturn also has impacted negatively our NAFTA partners and our cross-border trade and cross-border communities. Long waits to cross at land ports-of-entry both along the Mexican and Canadian borders are now commonplace, and fears of terrorists in our midst or on their way have shifted the immigration and border debate to security-related proposals such as biometric identifiers, limitations on visa issuances, and a national entry-exit control system.
What are the implications of the new environment for the U.S.-Mexico relationship, particularly as they relate to the immigration agenda? What is the likelihood of the proposed new framework moving forward? What role will Mexico need to play as a partner to the United States in this war on terrorism and as a neighbor who shares a 2,000 mile border and one-third of the North American continent? These are questions which people are grappling with both in Washington, D.C. and in Mexico City, and which will affect U.S. and Mexican communities in both countries.Implications
The tragic events of September 11 have wrought changes in the U.S. economy, the nation's domestic and international policy priorities, and the manner in which it views the world. All these changes are having an important, if not fully clear, impact on the immigration debate in the United States and, possibly, the future of a new arrangement with Mexico.
Economic. From an economic (and social) perspective, Mexican interests have been harmed in a multitude of ways. Not only have some Mexicans lost their lives in the World Trade Center bombings, but also, for many Mexicans in the United States, elimination of jobs at maquiladoras, hotels, restaurants, and construction may lead to serious economic hardships. There are reports that over 350,000 Mexicans have returned home since September 11 and rising unemployment in the United States may reduce the incentive for some to come. The slowing economy also may reduce demand for H-2A (agricultural) and particularly, H-2B (non-agricultural) low-skilled temporary workers, categories that are comprised predominantly of Mexican workers. The intertwined nature of the two nations' economies has meant a simultaneous slowing of economic growth in Mexico as well which could actually lead to more job-seekers leaving Mexico to enter the United States.
For those Mexicans in the United States illegally who may have lost their jobs they are facing extremely complex choices; if they return home their families will lose the remittances the migrant may have been sending home and there is no guarantee of finding work. Moreover, the enhanced border enforcement will make re-entry extremely difficult (and/or dangerous and expensive), and it also might disqualify them from a future regularization program if the criteria involve proving continuous long-term residence in the United States. If they stay, however, they are likely to continue living in the shadows, with no guarantee of a new job, regularization of status, or the ability to visit their family back home. In a perverse way, the shutdowns in assembly plants, the disruptions to community life at the border, and the slowdown of the Mexican economy (in large part in response to the U.S. slowdown) are reemphasizing to many policymakers and U.S. and Mexican citizens the interconnected nature of the two economies, the deep social ties between its citizens, and the role of the border as a conduit for hundreds of millions of dollars of annual trade and hundreds of millions of annual crossings.
Policy. The most significant change is that immigration, as with all policy issues, is now viewed through a security lens. Security is the utmost priority and security-related issues have replaced all others at the top of Washington's agenda. Any immigration proposals that resurface on the political agenda, such as regularization of status or issuance of student visas, will be geared toward this overriding policy concern. Given the personal and political capital that Presidents Bush and Fox have invested in the relationship between the two countries even prior to September 11, it is important to note that the United States has created an additional standard for friendship: the degree to which another state cooperates--in fact, partners--in the war against terrorism. As President Bush said to the U.S. Congress on September 20, 2001, 'Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.'
In some ways, the choice to side with the United States was a natural one for Mexico--if not an uncontested one by some among its political elite-- and President Fox has done so both publicly and privately. A full partnership, however, includes more today than it did in early September. For instance, Mexico might choose to use its influence in Latin America to persuade certain governments there to root out terrorist networks in their own countries. Although other immigration-related contributions are discussed below, the general point is that Americans want to feel that their neighboring countries are behind them 110%, providing assistance and support in every way imaginable, publicly and privately, particularly in terms of substantive and measurable contributions to a safe North American neighborhood.
Immigration. Arguably the hottest political topic in both Mexico and the United States in early September was the discussion between Presidents Bush and Fox about a new framework for Mexican migration. The events of the following week understandably caused the negotiations underway to be shelved temporarily, as were all other issues not connected directly to national security and public safety. Immigration-related discussions have since focused squarely on U.S. domestic and border security. Discussions about the latter have emphasized improving the security of the overseas visa issuance process through better intelligence and a more timely sharing of it; on thinking through the value and feasibility of management systems to track border entries and exits by using high tech 'smart cards;' and on much higher levels of cooperation and coordination with Canada and Mexico to protect better the North American space what some call a 'security perimeter.' These discussions offer good opportunities for Mexico to work closely with the United States (and Canada), and Mexico clearly intends to use them, as demonstrated by the November visit of President Fox's national security adviser, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser (along with senior Mexican immigration, customs, and intelligence officials) to Washington, D.C. to meet with Tom Ridge, Director of the Office of Homeland Security.
It is in the realm of U.S. concerns and initiatives on domestic security, however, that most of the pre-September 11 U.S.-Mexican immigration agenda now finds itself taking place. The initial phase of U.S. domestic security initiatives deal primarily with preventing another attack on U.S. soil and developing--and securing through explicit legislative authority--a legal and administrative framework for investigating the September 11 attacks. This phase is now well on the way to being accomplished; a second phase of domestic responses soon will begin to take shape. During this phase, it will become important for U.S. authorities to know more about the large undocumented population residing in the country, if for no other reason than to isolate and focus additional attention on those who might still wish us ill. This need for intelligence argues strongly for a registration campaign that is a concerted effort to 'document the undocumented.' For those who have followed the bilateral migration discussions, the philosophical, and perhaps more importantly, psychological and political distance between the 'regularization' framework being discussed prior to September 11, and the 'registration' concept the new U.S. security consciousness requires is miniscule--if it exists at all.
It is now clear that negotiators from both governments understand the new 'opportunity' and the remaining challenges. The restarting of the negotiations in mid-November, although lacking in substance, were a critical symbolic act. It confirmed the intentions of the two governments to begin to implement what both President Bush and Secretary Powell had been re-assuring their Mexican counterparts since the attack on the United States--that the bilateral agenda on restructuring the U.S.-Mexico migration relationship in a radical way continued to be a priority of the Administration. The recent visit by Senate-Majority Leader Daschle and House Minority Leader Gephardt was intended to emphasize the same point.
When all is said and done, the rationale for jump-starting the negotiations is compelling. With one exception--the conversation about bringing in large numbers of new temporary workers which now is likely to be deferred until the U.S. economy picks up steam--none of the other factors which provided the initial impetus for negotiations in a new and comprehensive U.S.-Mexico relationship has changed as a result of September 11. These include the presence of seven or eight million undocumented aliens in the United States (half of whom are likely Mexican), as estimated by Census 2000; still relevant labor force projections that by 2008 the United States will have over five million more jobs than workers, a large proportion of which will require only modest training; mass retirements over the next two decades by the baby boom generation which likely will be funded by the taxes paid by working immigrants; the Mexican economy's inability, in the short-term, to create sufficient numbers of jobs for its own nationals; and the fact that Mexico is the United States' 2nd largest trading partner. Moreover, September 11 may have shifted Americans' perceptions of Mexicans in the United States (even unauthorized ones) for the better in the sense that they are viewed as coming to the U.S. to work hard and improve their lives rather than as threats to U.S. national security. (Some have argued that registering those here would contribute to security by having their identities known and that opening more paths for legal, orderly entry would reduce illegal entries, allowing immigration officials to focus their resources on third-country nationals and/or security threats.)
Though high-level political interest has not waned, the re-ordering of U.S. priorities to emphasize first and foremost security dramatically has changed the context in which discussions about registering undocumented immigrants and even creating new temporary worker programs is taking place. All programs will be expected to include a more overt security component, with the ability to establish people's identities definitively being paramount. Moreover, development of any new framework likely will come with an increasingly explicit quid pro quo regarding more organic Mexican cooperation on security issues. Specifics for Mexico might include continuing to make substantial progress in its effort to close its Southern border and thus nearly stop being a country of transit; a continued fight against internal corruption, especially in matters that affect U.S. interests; ever greater intelligence and information sharing; consideration of joint training and lookout lists; and prevention of unsafe/illegal departures. It also is certain to include cooperation on tracking questionable money transfers and, as mentioned earlier, using its influence and intelligence contacts in Latin America to help track terrorist networks that may be operating or raising funds there.
The arguments for changing the framework on U.S.-Mexico migration actually may have been strengthened by the events of September 11 in the following sense: the ability of the terrorists to enter the United States through legal means and abuse the system for their own nefarious purposes pointed out the limits in the existing paradigm of border management. In fact, it is now clear that more (and more senior) people have reached the conclusion that we ourselves reached from fieldwork at both U.S. borders--a border management strategy that relies almost exclusively on enforcement not only fails to achieve the desired policy goal (prevention of illegal entry) but also may be counterproductive to the countries' best interests by slowing to a trickle the legitimate trade and travel across the border, adversely affecting the lives of border communities and both nations' economies, and building a bigger haystack in which to search for the handful of needles.
In this new security environment, the United States must invest both additional resources and far greater political capital working jointly with our neighbors to screen more carefully initial entries into the NAFTA space. This effort will require far greater understanding of how each NAFTA partner issues visas and administers entry, more convergence in visa and asylum policies in ways that do no harm to each partner's own priorities while protecting the partnership's interests, and far greater intelligence and information sharing directed toward effectively preventing the entry of terrorists and other undesirables. Mexico should be willing and even eager to engage in these discussions if entering a true partnership with the United States is indeed a Mexican goal, rather than merely the goal of President Fox and only some members of his Cabinet.Political Sensitivities
Traditionally, both in Mexico and in Canada, cooperation with the United States can be highly sensitive, particularly as it relates to sovereignty. We do not suggest that our NAFTA partners simply should substitute U.S. priorities for theirs nor should they adopt identical policies. Instead we are emphasizing that Mexico, just as Canada has done, must be clearly and unequivocally on the same side of the battlefield against terrorism.
The interconnectedness of the U.S. and Mexican economies and, in some important ways, societies, is now a truism. But that does not make this proposition any less true. If even a single terrorist were to pass through Mexico to the U.S. and that fact were documented, then the admirable job President Bush has done in proactively distinguishing between between law-abiding immigrants and terrorists abusing our non-immigrant visa system and in reminding us all that America is a country built on immigrants, might not be nearly enough not to harm our relationship. Furthermore, because terrorist actions in the United States directly affect Mexicans and the Mexican economy, Mexican cooperation with the United States on these issues is in its own vital self-interest. Since we all have a stake in keeping potential terrorists out of the NAFTA space, focusing on the many areas of possible policy convergence should become a trilateral (U.S.-Mexico-Canada) priority. The fact that the United States is now much more aware that unilateral actions are insufficient to protect its security, and is acknowledging openly that we need our friends and neighbors if we are to succeed in our priorities, creates an opening in U.S.-Mexico negotiations that adds a crucial, and new, element to the pre-September 11 discussions.
Failure to take advantage of this new political energy will serve both Mexican and U.S. interests and priorities poorly. This is a time to be bold and creative rather than being stuck in the morass of bureaucratic limitations and nationalistic sensitivities--however important the latter may be. In fact, in the future, the ability of Mexicans to move back and forth between the two countries in the relatively free manner that these negotiations, if successful, might lead to (and to which those in the borderlands were somewhat accustomed prior to September 11), will depend on Mexico's ability to play its role in the emerging 'grand bargain' and prove itself a reliable partner. Should it do so, the United States is likely to demonstrate its gratitude through a more mature partnership and through policies that help Mexico achieve its own goals.
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