European Affairs

The U.S. and Mexico Should Strike a Grand Bargain on Immigration     Print Email
Demetrios Papademetriou

Senior Associate and Co-Director, International Migration Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

With new leaders in power on either side of the Rio Grande, the prospects for a grand bargain between the United States and Mexico on immigration and the border have probably never been brighter.

Such a bargain might involve a U.S. offer of various forms of legal status to illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States, more permanent visas for family reunification and large numbers of temporary work visas. In exchange, Mexico would agree to joint efforts with U.S. authorities to attack drug trafficking, clamp down on organized illegal migration from and through Mexico and to restore order at the U.S.-Mexico border.


There are two main grounds for hoping such an accord can be reached: President George W. Bush and President Vicente Fox have already agreed to a joint reappraisal of their immigration policies, and the incentives for both sides to forge an agreement have never been stronger.

For the United States, it makes sense to address future needs for immigrant labor on a more coherent basis now that the U.S. low-wage labor market has become so highly dependent on Mexican workers. The coexistence for several years of very low unemployment rates with very high labor force participation rates for legal and illegal immigrants has made this clear to everyone.

Attempts to control immigration by dramatically stepping up law enforcement along the border have proved counterproductive. The unintended consequences have included a huge growth in organized crime as would-be immigrants turn to smugglers to help them reach the United States, more violence at the border, and a tendency for illegal immigrants to stay longer in the United States rather than §it back and forth across the border.

The most important new factor on the American side, however, could be emerging evidence from the latest U.S. census that recent annual net illegal immigration may be as much as 50 percent higher than previously believed, with traffic from Mexico as much as twice the estimated 175,000 to 200,000 people a year.

If that is so, it would be another big reason for the United States to explore an alternative to its expensive but largely ineffective build-up of border defenses, at a cost of about $1.5 billion a year.

Mexico has equally compelling reasons to seek an agreement. They include the increasing number of fatalities at the border, which approached 500 last year; the disorder that results from repeated American expulsions of would-be illegal immigrants; and the harmful effect of illegal immigration on the broader U.S.-Mexican relationship. These are strong incentives for Mr. Fox to negotiate a dramatic change in the status quo.

The United States and Mexico also clearly have a shared interest in dealing with organized criminal networks, which undermine the legitimacy and authority of the Mexican government while causing severe problems for the United States that go well beyond illegal immigration.

The two new Presidents have a unique opportunity. Although the inaugurations of U.S. and Mexican Presidents have coincided every 12 years since the 1950s, this is the first time that simultaneous elections have brought the opposition party to power in both countries.

As a result, neither president is constrained by the policies of his predecessor. By a fortunate coincidence, both have served as governors of states shaped in many ways by migration and by the broader Mexico-U.S. economic relationship.

It will not, however, be possible to make substantial and sustained progress on immigration without addressing the basic issues of development and governance faced by Mexico. Both Mr. Fox and Mr. Bush understand that.

It is a help that Mexican migration is in some ways less complex than it is often assumed to be. Mexicans are primarily driven northward by a desire for economic improvement, rather than by social and political oppression or con§ict.

In other ways, however, the causes of Mexican migration are more complex than often assumed. Migration is encouraged by the ready availability of American jobs for poorly educated but hard working Mexicans and by well-established Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant networks in the United States.

The reliance of American consumers on both products and services offered more cheaply through the use of immigrant labor reinforces this process. The result is a symbiosis between the goals of Mexican migrant workers and the requirements of U.S. employers, investors, and consumers. In such circumstances, unilateral enforcement measures are unlikely to work.

The sheer scale of Mexican migration dwarfs immigration from any other source. Mexico already gets about one-sixth of the 800,000 permanent U.S. visas issued each year, several times the number of the next highest recipient, which, depending on the year, could be the Phillippines, China (including Taiwan), or India. (Russia was a very large user of U.S. visas in the first half of the 1990s because of Jewish emigration).

Unless a comprehensive new approach is successfully adopted, at least 50 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States are likely to continue to come from Mexico, with about 15 to 20 percent from the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The numbers of illegal immigrants set new records in the 1990s.

This much is clear: Policies are unlikely to succeed if they run counter to deeply embedded market and social forces in a society that otherwise idolizes freedom, as the United States does, at least rhetorically. The U.S. response to illegal immigration will have to be rethought.

There are five issues to be addressed.

  • A serious commitment is needed to establish transparent and consistent legal immigration regulations that lead to fair, predictable and timely outcomes for immigrants and their families and employers.
  • Consistent and sustained controls at the border must be maintained
  • There is a need for a stronger and more systematic anti-smuggling effort. Such an effort can succeed better when undertaken in cooperation with like-minded countries, and particularly the countries of origin of the immigrants.
  • A better understanding is needed of the U.S. labor market in order to permit the development of realistic rules to improve the working conditions of all workers in low wage jobs, without unnecessary government intrusion.
  • The government should rethink its reliance on penalizing employers for hiring illegal workers as an immigration control measure. This measure has failed to make a dent on illegal immigration while leading to discrimination against many minority job applicants.

These also happen to be among the recommendations of a distinguished U.S.-Mexican panel on migration convened last year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM). The panel issued preliminary recommendations two days before Presidents Fox and Bush met in mid-February, and its full report came out at the end of March.

The report details the elements of an integrated bilateral policy package on immigration and border matters, suggests a set of parameters for negotiation, and identifies numerous concrete short- and medium-term initiatives for carrying the bargain forward.

It outlines some of the bilateral mechanisms necessary for managing the dialogue and for coordinating policies.

It is increasingly clear that the thrust of the current U.S. approach to immigration is inconsistent with the reality of an increasingly integrated North America and with the idea of a common destiny for the region. Mr. Fox has said he wants to build further on NAFTA, creating a U.S.-Mexico relationship he calls "NAFTA-Plus."

He has called for redistributive policies similar to those of the European Union and eventually an open border. Mr. Bush, for his part, apparently envisions a relationship with Mexico that parallels the U.S. relationship with Canada.

Although the two visions may not be identical, the economic facts alone argue for a reappraisal. Seven years since NAFTA came into force, Mexico is the United States' second largest trading partner, with two-way trade between the two countries of more than $600 million a day. (Two-way trade with Canada, the United States' largest trading partner, is about $1.1 billion a day).

Increasing levels of economic interdependence and deeper integration, however, have not prevented chronic irritants like illegal migration and drug trafficking from posing a clear danger to the partnership envisioned by many NAFTA supporters. Each time a border incident involves government personnel from either side, a border-crosser dies in the desert or a Mexican immigrant is mistreated by a U.S. official, the entire bilateral relationship is put at risk.

There is a glaring incompatibility between NAFTA, which is designed to institutionalize the free §ow of capital, goods, and services, and the saturation policing and militarized border control tactics designed to keep Mexican citizens out of the United States. The contradiction can only make the goal of transforming the NAFTA relationship into a mature partnership more distant.

The sort of partnership envisioned by the Carnegie/ITAM panel respects the sovereignty of each side, while fully acknowledging the social and economic interdependence between them. It asks both parties to think strategically about how to take advantage of the resources each brings to the relationship, including labor.

Above all, the panel appeals to the two governments to understand that it is not possible to be partners on economic issues and antagonists on migration.

Are there any lessons for Europe in all of this? Illegal immigration into the European Economic Area - the EU plus Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein - is now estimated to be roughly at North American levels, partly because of a failure to agree on appropriate policies governing legal immigration.

A school of thought in Europe, as in the United States, has always argued that illegal immigration has grown because the authorities do not have the legislative and administrative tools - and the enforcement resources - to address it effectively.

This has encouraged an extraordinary growth in the array of legislative, judicial, and administrative measures to deter unauthorized immigration. In addition to the old stand-by of sanctioning the employers of unauthorized foreign workers, the new tools include different forms of border controls, increasing contingents of border guards, severe criminal penalties for smugglers and their accomplices, and the incarceration and removal of illegal or criminal immigrants.

It is not clear whether these latter measures are pursued more vigorously in Europe or the United States. Every year, however, on both sides of the Atlantic, immigration control agencies are better funded than the year before. Yet illegal immigration continues to grow.

The similarities do not end there. Both the U.S. and the European labor markets are becoming more dependent on low-wage workers, including illegal immigrants, than most politicians - and many analysts - are willing to acknowledge.

Large-scale migration will continue to feed this dependence, creating a complicated set of causes and effects. Furthermore, interest in family reunification will remain strong for the foreseeable future, and the social networks that argue for it and facilitate it have proved capable of circumventing most traditional immigration controls.

Even these forces, however, are not sufficient to explain the scale of unauthorized immigration. It is the ample opportunities for work in advanced industrial economies that complete the picture.

In the 1990s, immigrants of virtually any skill level or legal status became essential employees throughout the advanced world. Most countries have been unwilling to acknowledge this, much more so in Europe than in North America.

In Europe, immigration has soared despite very high domestic unemployment rates, which in many ways re§ect the market's decision to create its own §exibility.

Recent growth in migration might thus be viewed as a phenomenon in which labor §ows are becoming an ordinary and organic part of an increasingly integrated world. Although this proposition may be slightly more appropriate for North America, Europeans continue to ignore or deny it at their peril.

The proposition may be a good starting point for honest bilateral dialogues on migration. These dialogues might start from a simple yet compelling premise: It is in the vital interests of both sending and receiving countries to create an orderly system of migration §ows that maximizes the positive effects for each partner, and for the immigrants, too, while minimizing negative consequences.

A well-managed and orderly migration system will thus serve all parties - the communities from which migrants originate, the communities that are their destinations and the immigrants themselves.

Of course, a system of credible border controls and interior inspections must remain in place for some time both as a safeguard of the integrity of the agreements that may be reached and, perhaps more importantly, as a political fail-safe device to placate those who oppose any deviation from the unilateral enforcement model.

Orderly movement should become a principal element of a new set of migration relationships.This approach may be as relevant for Europe as it is for North America, and it points the way to reconnecting migration with economic development, a goal as noble as it is important.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number II in the Spring of 2001.