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Column 122704 Davidow

Immigration, the United States and Mexico


By Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow




Any discussion of the U.S.-Mexico illegal immigration scene should take into consideration certain basic assumptions:

  • Outflow from Mexico to the U.S. — “the push” — will continue at high rates until the Mexican economy can provide sufficient work opportunities and decent standards of living to a far greater percentage of its population.  The most optimistic assumptions hold that the outflow will continue for another generation.

  • The attraction of the U.S. — “the pull” — as a society in which working for wages well above those available in Mexico and with a way of life that offers greater economic security, personal opportunities, and the rule of law will continue.

  • The draconian measures necessary to “seal the border,” e.g. national identity documents for all, serious punishment for employers of undocumented aliens, use of military force on the border, 100 per cent inspection of all cargo, etc., is unlikely to be acceptable to the American public and important political and economic interests.

  • The Mexican Government cannot and will not use force to prevent its citizens from leaving the country.

Given the above, it is unlikely that the immigration problem can be “solved” in the near or medium term.  The immigration debate in the United States may become more heated and less enlightened. This will make even more difficult the basic task for government of managing the issue of undocumented aliens in a way that serves U.S. national interests and provides for a level of humane and just treatment for those who are ‘pushed” or “pulled” northward.  The U.S. and Mexico do a relatively good job of managing any number of potentially conflictive issues, but immigration is an issue that falls easy prey to ideological and emotional responses on both sides of the border that make management very complicated.


Opposing Views


Immigration is currently the most divisive issue in the U.S.-Mexican relationship.  There is a fundamental disconnect between the way most Mexicans and most Americans look at the topic of illegal aliens.  For most north of the border the question of who gets to come to the United States is, at base, a matter of law.  There is legislation, rules, regulations, criteria, waiting periods, and bureaucracies that should be respected.  Some can come. Most can’t. Too bad: immigration into the United States is a privilege not available to all.


Most Mexicans have a different view: going to El Norte to work is an accepted part of life and local culture, in some cases generations old.  There is clearly a need for Mexican labor in the United States — otherwise how would so many find employment there?  And, if the U.S. Government — which is generally seen as omnipotent — were truly serious about keeping illegal aliens out, it would only have to punish the employers who make the flow northwards so attractive. It does not do so, therefore, it is not serious.


Given the Mexican perspective, which comes close to seeing the northward migration as a right, recent efforts to harden the border that have made the crossing more dangerous are perceived as noxiously hypocritical.  The tightening of controls around major ports of entry, beginning with El Paso and San Diego in the mid-90’s, has resulted in more undocumented aliens attempting to make the crossing in hazardous areas.  The numbers who die in the attempt to cross the desert or mountains is between 300 and 400 a year. The message, from the perspective south of the border seems to be: “we will do everything we can to make it difficult – perhaps even deadly – to come to the United States.  But if you can make it to Phoenix, Los Angeles or anywhere else, we will be pleased to look the other way and let you find work.”


And the numbers who do cross keep growing.  The growth of the Mexican population in the U.S. has been exponential in recent years. In 1970, about 800,000 natives of Mexico lived in the United States. Thirty-plus years later, there are ten million, about half in undocumented status. The surge in the 1990’s, which continued past 2000, was particularly notable, with the total increasing by an estimated 300-400,000 per year, or, put differently, one million new Mexican-born residents of the U.S. every three years or less.  (Note: This is the total of net “stayers.” The total of temporary crossers is much higher. By definition, almost all figures relating to what is essentially clandestine flow of people are estimates.  The number of crossers decreased with the economic downturn of post-2000 and seems to be once again on the increase.)


 Presidents Bush and Fox


The arrival of the two new presidents on the scene in late 2000 seemed to herald the possibility for change in the immigration scene.  At their meeting in February 2001 at Fox’s ranch in Guanajuato — Mr. Bush’s first meeting as president with a foreign leader — they agreed that something had to be done. 


The Mexicans placed five separate, but interrelated, issues on the table: legalization for undocumented aliens already in the U.S.; an expanded temporary workers program; revision of U.S. visa policies so that Mexicans eligible for legal permanent alien status could get their green cards faster; funds for economic development in Mexico that would provide alternatives to emigration; and, cooperation on safety issues at the border. The American side accepted all of the themes as worthy of discussion, but made it clear that a full-scale amnesty, like the one enacted in 1986 was out of the question.  About 2 million Mexicans had taken advantage of that law, and rather than ending the illegal migration problem, it actually exacerbated it by increasing the number of the resident community in the U.S., better able to welcome new arrivals. But the prohibition on an amnesty did not rule out discussion of some process of legalization for some Mexicans already in the United States.


It is now conventional wisdom that the hope engendered by the Guanajuato meeting was terminated by the events of September 11, 2001.  The facts, however, are that the discussions — the Mexicans preferred the term “negotiations” — made no real progress during the spring of 2001. They had run into the brick wall of domestic U.S. political concerns and intra-administration differences well before the September tragedy. Out of necessity, America’s attention focused elsewhere and the palpable euphoria in Mexico dissipated.


In early 2004, President Bush publicly offered ideas for an expanded temporary workers program, but the issue was not seriously developed in Congress. In their most recent meeting at the APEC conference in Chile in November 2004, President Bush publicly committed to reinitiate efforts on a temporary worker program.


The American Mood 


Americans continue to prize the openness of their society and do not wish to close their country to newcomers.  But there are signs that the national consensus is under strain.  The heavy focus on security after 9/11 that has made life more difficult for many undocumented aliens and their families has been accepted without much public criticism or knowledge.  The debate on outsourcing on occasion ironically translates into concern about foreigners coming to take jobs here rather than the export of jobs to other lands. The still sluggish economy makes the American people less generous.


Public opinion leaders — even Harvard professor Samuel Huntington — are casting doubt on America’s ability to withstand the immigrant surge.  Huntington’s book Who Are We posits a United States unable to maintain national unity in the face of a future crisis because of a large body of unassimilated Hispanics. The academic underpinnings of Huntington’s work are weak, partial, overly anecdotal, and simply incorrect.  But his elegant phrasing about the loss of Anglo-Protestant domination — yet another volley in the ongoing battle about multiculturalism — is frequently echoed in less elegant tones by many Americans.


While important, the sense of cultural dislocation and challenge is not as important in promoting anti-immigrant sentiment as the economic pressure that many Americans, particularly in states along the border are feeling.  They see communities bearing heavy financial pressure for more schools, clinics, and other public services necessitated by large numbers of undocumented Mexicans in residence. They feel their government is not doing enough to protect them and their family’s budgets.  The fact is that the benefits of illegal immigration — larger labor pool, lower inflation, higher levels of productivity — are felt at the national level and so dispersed as to be generally imperceptible.


On the other hand, the negatives of increased illegal immigration are frequently felt in real, budgetary terms at the local level. The voters of Arizona, reportedly including a significant minority percentage of Hispanics, voted in favor of Proposition 200 in the November elections. A watered-down version of California’s unconstitutional Proposition 187, the Arizona measure will deny some public services to undocumented aliens. 


The public’s concern about homeland security is frequently intertwined — sometimes legitimately and on occasion for political or racist motives — with the debate about illegal immigration. For example, the ongoing legislative struggle in California about driver’s licenses for illegal aliens is frequently discussed in terms of national security and the need to protect against terrorism.  In reality, the majority of support to deny comes from those who see obtaining drivers licenses — particularly in car-dominated California — as the key to living freely in this country and as the most important action — short of voting — that can distinguish a legal from an illegal resident. 


Many observers argue that by making it more difficult to enter the United States, once in aliens will not take the risk of leaving and re-entering, thus ending the “circularity” which once characterized the flow.  U.S. immigration policy is not working well. If the criteria for success is to keep undocumented aliens out, it is clearly failing. If the criteria for success are an orderly, just, and humane flow, the policy is similarly a failure.


Policy Considerations


The flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States is a long-term problem that will require constant management for sometime to come. It is not an independent phenomenon, but rather the result of Mexico’s lack of sufficient development and opportunities.  Shorn of all complexities and nuances, the answer to the problem is greater prosperity in Mexico.  As demonstrated in the poorer countries of the European Union, when opportunities and wealth increase emigration diminishes.


The fundamental policy question, given this, is whether the United States could or should do more to promote Mexican economic development beyond the substantial advantage already enjoyed by Mexico by membership in NAFTA. And very much associated with what the United States might do, and indeed more important, is what steps the Mexican government should take to improve its economy, make itself more competitive, attract greater levels of foreign and domestic investment and produce the kind of opportunities that will reduce the outflow.  (It is very difficult to argue in the United States to give support to Mexico when it appears that Mexico is unwilling to make the necessary reforms that could help its economy and reduce migration). Finally, what role should or could the United States play in encouraging the kinds of change necessary in Mexico?


In the short and medium-run there are undoubtedly steps that could be taken in the United States that would make life better for those already residing here in an undocumented status.  A full amnesty, like that of 1986, is one such option, but though well received by the beneficiaries it will do little to stop the flow of newcomers. Temporary worker programs for both agricultural and semi-skilled non-agricultural laborers might put some order into the flow of people and help to restore circularity by promoting “goings” as well as “comings.” An expedited process of green card issuance for those already approved but waiting for their number to come up could seriously reduce the rolls of the undocumented. 


Whatever programs that are devised should find ways of giving incentives to undocumented aliens to participate, rather than offering them a new opportunity for deportation. And in constructing the programs, the heterogeneous nature of the undocumented Mexican community should be factored in: there is a big difference between the man who crossed yesterday to work in the fields and the family who has been here for 20 years, owns a business, and has children in college.  They may all be lumped together as illegal aliens, but they certainly have different profiles that must be considered.


There are no easy ways out of the migration mess. And every suggestion for new policy or program generates opposition, some unthinking and some thoughtful and legitimate.  What is clear is that among many Americans there is a growing sentiment that “something should be done.” The “something” however remains vague and contradictory when expressed. All of which offers policymakers no simple answers and only hard choices. 


Jeffrey Davidow is President of the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, California.  Ambassador Davidow, who was U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002, served 34 years in the U.S. Department of State.

Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow