E.g., 04/12/2024
E.g., 04/12/2024
Converging Realities of the U.S.-Mexico Relationship

Converging Realities of the U.S.-Mexico Relationship


U.S.-Mexico talks on migration and related issues have made little progress since September 11, 2001, despite continuing strong pressure from Mexico, U.S. President George W. Bush's search for the terms of an agreement that will be politically palatable to the U.S. Congress, and the support of important U.S. societal sectors (e.g., organized labor, business interests, the rights community, and the Democratic Party) for recasting the relationship. The challenge for both countries thus remains as it has been since last September: how to navigate the political and economic complexities of the bilateral migration and border relationship in ways that enhance mutual economic growth and address U.S. preoccupations with national security.

The aim of the negotiations has not changed since February, 2001, when the opening for a new relationship appeared at a meeting of the two new presidents in Mexico: to move the U.S.-Mexico migration relationship from one mired in problems and recriminations to one yielding important, reciprocal, and long-term economic and law-and-order benefits. The September 11 terrorist acts clearly moved part of the negotiating agenda to the political back burner. Another part, however, that of enhancing order and security at the border and, increasingly, throughout the NAFTA zone, has increased in importance and negotiations on it are continuing apace. That emphasis notwithstanding, the border agenda is by no means forgotten. Mexico has received assurances that full negotiations at the principals' level will resume after the U.S. "mid-term" elections in November 2002. In preparation for that event, technical discussions continue on all issues.

Convergence on What Needs to Be Done

The spring of 2001 witnessed a historically unique convergence on the parameters of what would need to be done in order to change the bilateral migration and border relationship in fundamental and mutually beneficial ways. The agenda incorporated five closely interdependent concepts, characterized by the Mexican secretary of foreign affairs memorably, if somewhat too colorfully, as "the whole enchilada." Others, particularly this author and some of his colleagues, as well as Mexican businessman and former senior Mexican diplomat Andres Rozental, have called them the "grand bargain." These five concepts can be naturally divided into three "core" concepts, on which bilateral cooperation is critical, and two additional concepts on which cooperation would lead to strongly positive policy outcomes for both countries over time.

The three core initiatives are as follows:

1. Earned Regularization: Earned regularization would create opportunities for the undocumented population to move in an orderly manner from illegal, to legal, to "lawful permanent resident" ("green card") status by earning "credits" or "points" in each of a number of pre-agreed categories over a set time period.

The categories in which individuals would earn points are likely to include abiding by the law (measured by having no criminal record), stability at the workplace, paying taxes, having significant family equities in the U.S., and meeting some modest benchmarks of integration (such as learning English and certain measures of their engagement in community life).

A fee that is substantial enough to defray the costs of administering the regularization program and to underwrite the initial service costs to local communities would also be part of the package, so as to take the tax burden issue off the table.

While the "earned regularization" program would likely apply to all unauthorized immigrants, the negotiations are likely to produce a "Mexicans-first" agreement in recognition of the fact that migration through and from Mexico accounts for at least three-fifths of all net unauthorized immigration to the United States. Giving temporal preference to Mexicans would also be an incentive for deeper Mexican cooperation on related matters.

As rational as earned regularization is, it faces intense political opposition from important wings of the Republican Party and from many U.S. citizens opposed to "rewarding lawbreakers." This creates a political dilemma that President Bush will have to come to terms with if he wishes to attain his full policy goals with Mexico.

2. Temporary worker program for new Mexican workers. The logic of a large-scale temporary worker program is rooted in the need to address both ongoing pressures for migration from Mexico -- a reality anchored in Mexico's demographic and economic realities -- and the U.S. labor market's demand for such workers by opening up and regulating temporary Mexican entries into the United States for work purposes.

Considering the skepticism with which many observers in both countries view temporary worker programs, the negotiators realize that any such initiative would be required to treat participants with dignity and safeguard their labor rights. They also realize that such a program would have to be large enough to substitute legal employees for most of the Mexican workers who now risk everything to enter the United States illegally, work in violation of U.S. employment rules, and often become subject to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. In many instances, their very vulnerability undermines labor standards for all workers.

This is one initiative on which officials of both countries agree on both principle and substance. Core constituencies in both countries, however, including the labor movement and civil society, as well as the U.S. Democratic Party, oppose this provision unless the terms of the agreement are proper and the agreement is part of a package that includes generous regularization provisions.

3. Border management and security arrangements. The third core element of the grand bargain focuses on attaining a level of organic bilateral cooperation on border management and security. Such an arrangement would be in some ways similar to, if initially more modest than, the Smart Borders Agreement signed with Canada and would build on cooperation that has been ongoing, if rather low key. While accelerating and deepening such cooperation would be a substantive and political slam-dunk for President Bush, it poses a difficult political problem for President Fox. Fox continues to be attacked domestically for interfering with the "constitutionally protected" right of Mexicans to leave their homeland without interference by Mexican authorities -- without, the critics say, having gained anything of substance for Mexico in return. While this is a problem that the Mexicans will ultimately have to solve themselves, the negotiators understand that long-term U.S. interests suggest that Fox be given the tools (in the form of an agreement on the regularization plan and on a large temporary worker program) to be able to be and remain a reliable U.S. partner in an effective border control and security effort.

The two additional areas that have been part of the bilateral discussion are as follows:

1. Expedited family reunification for Mexicans immigrants. Although there is no agreement on this issue within the U.S. negotiating team, that objective could be achieved by exempting the nationals of countries bordering the U.S. from some or all of the U.S. immigration formula's annual numerical restrictions. Such a step would neutralize one of the key drivers of unauthorized Mexican (and Canadian) migration to the U.S..

2. Social infrastructure and economic development initiatives that target high out-migration areas within Mexico. The financing for such initiatives would include federal and state authorities in Mexico, international financial institutions, and modest levels of U.S. assistance. The lion's share of the financing, however, would come from migrant remittances, which now account for about $9 billion per year. That amount would increase substantially through a temporary worker program. Together, and in the context of the package discussed here, such initiatives are expected to create the conditions for future generations of Mexicans to stay home.

A Security Wild Card?

The current U.S. preoccupation with security has introduced an additional dimension to the bilateral discussions which, predictably, has allowed the border management component of the grand bargain to leapfrog in importance over other components of the discussion. The already mentioned multi-point border accord signed by the two presidents on March 22, 2002 is both an example of the priority the U.S. attaches to the security issue and of Mr. Fox's appreciation of that reality. (It is also important to note that on that same day, President Bush committed a small but symbolically important $30 million to Mexico's efforts to address migration's root causes at Mexico's areas of highest out-migration.)

The security issue also opens a window for making regularization more palatable to those who are skeptical about or simply oppose such an initiative. The Mexicans and some opinion leaders in the U.S. have wondered aloud whether a process to register all unauthorized immigrants in a sort of "census of the undocumented" might usefully precede the regularization process. Such an initiative could also become a step toward the implementation of U.S. Congressional directives for automated systems to track foreigners who are not permanent immigrants. In order for this step to succeed, however, immigrant communities and their advocates would have to be convinced that the rules of the regularization program would create real opportunities for most undocumented immigrants, regardless of country of origin, to earn legal status.

Win-Win Solutions

The core elements of the grand bargain are classic win-win economic and good government solutions to a so-far intractable set of issues. However, that does not make them any less politically difficult for either government.

For the United States, the potential wins are on fundamental matters. First, achieving full Mexican government cooperation in protecting the common border from the unauthorized entries of people, drugs, contraband of all types, and security-related materials is a central pivot to the U.S. law-and-order and national security agenda. Second, and related to the point above, Mexico's cooperation on intelligence-sharing in order to combat terrorist networks that may seek to operate in either country's physical space is likely to reduce U.S. anxieties on this issue and will strengthen the U.S. security effort enormously. Third, the U.S. stands to access an orderly and regulated supply of new workers who can continue to contribute to the U.S. "quality of life" and fuel U.S. economic growth. Fourth, with the first three elements in place, the U.S. has the opportunity to resolve the issue of the eight to nine million undocumented immigrants currently here, as much as half of whom are likely to have come from Mexico, and as many as an additional 10 to 15 percent to have used Mexico as the route of illegal entry.

Mexico also stands to gain enormously if the grand bargain can truly be struck. First, it will have finally won official U.S. acknowledgement that Mexican workers and the competitiveness of several U.S. economic sectors are completely intertwined. Few analysts doubt that the very survival of many low value-added products and services depends heavily on Mexican labor, but few officials have been willing to say so openly and to propose progressive policies to legalize and regulate the process. Both the regularization program and the temporary worker program for new workers would address that critical relationship in no uncertain terms.

The second major benefit for Mexico comes from the gains in good governance that would stem from reclaiming the migration process from the control of the (often large-scale) smuggling networks. Such networks undermine public authority throughout Mexico through corruption and intimidation. Ordering the migration process also satisfies the ambitions of President Fox, who strives to be the first president of all Mexicans by fighting for their social and human rights regardless of where they live.

Some benefits of the grand bargain will naturally accrue to both countries. The first one is safeguarding and creating conditions for continuing growth in the flow of legitimate goods and people ? thus promoting the economic prosperity envisioned by NAFTA. Second, and as previously mentioned, reclaiming the migration process from the smuggling networks and black marketeers who currently operate with a low probability of being apprehended on either side of the 2,000-mile long common border is to both countries' advantage. Third, and as a corollary to both previous points, a smoothly-functioning border and a robust bilateral economic relationship create opportunities for economic and social improvements on both sides of the common border, an economically depressed area whose fate, to an inordinate degree, is in the hands of decision makers in Washington and Mexico City.

There are many additional straightforward benefits that bolster the three prongs of the negotiations outlined here -- earned regularization, a temporary worker program, and border security -- and add enough persuasiveness to possibly make the difference in the outcome of the negotiations. For instance, over time, working as one with Mexico on border management and security issues will likely require fewer law-and-order investments from the United States on the border. Furthermore, even a modestly robust U.S. economic recovery will reanimate the need for new Mexican workers and enhance the size of Mexican remittances. In addition, although the earned regularization proposal may have little to do with the day-to-day ups and downs of the economy (since this initiative is about workers who are already in the United States), making the undocumented immigrants legal will free up their employers from the threat of sanctions, the workers themselves from the stigma of illegality, and their co-workers from the accompanying undercutting of their labor rights.


The United States is asking the Mexican Government to undertake the painful institutional reforms and legal and regulatory changes that would enable Washington to rely on it as an economic and security partner in the long term. In the process, the Mexican people will benefit from the economic, social, good government, and law-and-order and security outcomes they have the right to expect from their government and that President Fox has promised.

Mexico seems willing to partner with the United States on its law-and-order and national (and NAFTA-wide) security agenda. However, it is asking President Bush to assume substantial short-term political risks in the form of opposition by important Republican constituencies to some of the proposals on the negotiating table, especially regularization and the proactive increase in Mexican immigration to the United States.

Both governments are facing countervailing pressures and must persuade key constituencies that the political perils associated with the core negotiating initiatives are both manageable and create significant long-term opportunities. Whether statesmanship and smart public policy will trump short-term political calculations will be known in the next 12 to 18 months.