Those following the US primary elections could be forgiven for thinking that Latin America in the minds of these candidates is, as ever, the “forgotten continent”. While it may be true that most of Latin America remains an afterthought, Mexico is certainly not forgotten, though it probably wishes it could be. Instead, Mexico and its citizens are Exhibit A in ongoing rhetorical skirmishes about “securing our borders”, cracking down on “illegal immigrants”, and harsh modes of “workplace enforcement”. Whatever the benefits of the floodtide of low-cost Mexican labor into the US, these are being totally drowned out by the harsh tone of the immigration debate.
Most of the anti-immigrant rhetoric can be discounted as so much pandering to the right wing of the Republican Party. It is impossible to take seriously Mitt Romney’s proposal to give millions of undocumented workers now living in the United States up to 90 days to get their affairs in order before deportation. It is just as much as a “fairy tale” to believe, as John McCain (a much more moderate voice on immigration, to be sure) promises, that the southern border of the US can be totally sealed off through building of walls, satellite imaging, and human sensor technology.
A recent book by the Mexican intellectual and politician, Jorge Castaneda, really ought to be required reading for anyone interested in this incredibly important issue of Mexican immigration to the United States. Castaneda draws out some of the stylized facts of the massive movement of Mexicans into the US that poke holes in the empty immigration rhetoric heard in this campaign. Some of the inconvenient facts are these:
- By 2005, more than eleven million Mexican-born individuals lived in the United States, the equivalent of 3.8% of the total US population and more than 10% of Mexico’s. (The numbers are now probably in excess of 12 million, the majority without documents.)
- These numbers of Mexican-born are a huge expansion of the historical pattern with much of the growth occurring after the US moved to secure its borders in the wake of NAFTA approval in the mid-1990s and then again after 9/11.
- Ironically, the tightening of the US borders has not only made the crossing more dangerous for migrants, it has contributed to putting an end to the “circularity” of Mexican migration which had characterized much of the previous century of Mexican migration.
- Facing huge risks of lost livelihood in the US if they returned home periodically to visit the family, the migrants have opted to become immigrants, sent home for their families, and spread across the entire US far from the traditional border areas. (Mexicans in New York City are the fastest growing foreign group.)
- The trend of Mexican migration looks set to continue unabated given the vastly different employment prospects and conflicting demographic structures of the US and Mexico. About 400,000-500,000 Mexican citizens (most in the prime migration group of males aged 15-34) are entering the US every year and this trend is expected to continue uninterrupted because of demographic trends in Mexico until at least 2015!
Faced with these inconvenient facts, both Democrats and Republicans are challenged to come up with some solution, and they will probably have to do so with little overt cooperation from the Calderon administration in Mexico which hides behind the old bromide that the best solution is to generate more and better paying jobs in Mexico. That is obvious, but in the meantime 12 million Mexicans are in the US already, hundreds of thousands more join them every year, and few of them plan on going back to Mexico. Moreover, Mexico does benefit from the large flow of migrant remittances which have surged to very high levels.
The solutions from a US point of view involve some combination of creating a pathway to legality and (eventually) citizenship for most, if not all, of the Mexicans already in the United States. The Republican candidates find this notion of “amnesty” appalling, but their hero, Reagan, proposed just such an amnesty in the 1980s and most of the US electorate accepts this outcome as inevitable and even desirable because of the obvious contributions the Mexican workers make.
The other key aspect of immigration reform must deal with the flow of 400,000+ workers still willing to risk everything to cross from Mexico into the US. Here the US has considered re-establishing some sort of temporary worker program that would allow many of these to pursue seasonal employment in the US, accepting the obligation to return home in exchange for the legal right to enter temporarily. The temporary worker program was another casualty of the Bush administration’s failure to spend political capital on immigration reform.
So while the US struggles to deal with the two (monumental) stock and flow issues, what is Mexico to do? If I am correct that the US and Mexico both face a nasty downturn in their inter-linked economies in 2008, even Mexico’s weak job creation efforts will flag, thus adding to the floodtide of migration this year. (Note that remittances have turned down sharply in recent months as subprime-related job losses may be affecting worker earnings.) Some sort of combined US-Mexico joint development effort focused on the main sending-communities in Mexico could help, but how realistic is that and how soon could it be implemented?
In the meantime, expect the campaign rhetoric on “securing our borders”, “workplace enforcement”, and “stopping the flow of illegal immigrants” to fill the airwaves on Super Tuesday and beyond. Luckily for us, the harsh and unrealistic laws that the candidates might seem to favor are not on the ballot this Tuesday. Once one of them is elected, the US and Mexico are going to have get back to the business of looking at facts and designing a solution.