Solve Undocumented Immigration—Bail Out Mexico

In this blog entry, Bill Ong Hing, author of Ethical Borders offers his responsible approach to addressing undocumented Mexican migration through substantial investment in Mexico’s infrastructure and economy.

With healthcare reform out of the way, the White House announcement that it wants to tackle comprehensive immigration reform is good news for the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and their supporters. However, if the package does not include at least the first steps toward helping Mexico improve its economy and infrastructure, undocumented Mexican migration will not be solved permanently.

During the presidential campaign, President Obama made it clear that his vision for reform includes legalization for those living in the shadows, but also securing the integrity of the border through additional personnel, infrastructure and technology on the border and at our ports of entry. His commitment to border integrity has been made clear through recent announcements by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano of increasing resources at the border and targeting employers who hire undocumented workers. The problem with the obsession of resources at the border and enforcement of employer sanctions is that those responses have been tried for years, yet unauthorized immigration continues. Coincidentally, as the White House was making its announcement on reforms, the Border Patrol reported increased migrant border deaths along the southern border, in spite of a decrease in arrests. In other words, migrants keep coming in spite of the militarization of the border and immigration raids. While Mexicans are not the only undocumented immigrants in the country, they make up almost 60%. To understand undocumented migration, we have to look beyond the simple explanation that many cross the border looking for work; we have to ask why they cannot find what they want in Mexico.

Comprehensive reform no doubt will include much-needed proposals for increased family and employment-based visas. Expanding those categories is necessary and will help reduce the pressure that leads to unauthorized border crossings. But we cannot deny that reducing the substantial flow across the southern border will require the expansion of the economy and job growth in Mexico, so that more Mexicans will be able to stay home. Interestingly, Obama the candidate, recognized this when he stated: “To reduce illegal immigration, we also have to help Mexico develop its own economy, so that more Mexicans can live their dreams south of the border.”

In 1994, we were told that NAFTA would solve the undocumented problem because jobs would be created in Mexico. But NAFTA contributed to huge job losses in Mexico. Mexican corn farmers could not compete with heavily-subsidized U.S. corn farmers, and now Mexico imports most of its corn from the U.S. Because of globalization, 100,000 jobs in Mexico’s domestic manufacturing sector were lost from 1993 to 2003. Where do those out of work farm workers and manufacturing employees look for work? Toward El Norte.

When the European Union experienced a push to expand its ranks to include poorer nations, member countries faced similar concerns. Because membership includes the right to open labor migration for all nationals of EU countries, the wealthier countries worried that as soon as membership was granted, there would a flood of workers from poorer nations flooding into the wealthier ones. Beginning with the 1973 EU enlargement to include Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, the British insisted on an approach to aid poorer regions. When Greece (1981), and Portugal and Spain (1986) were added, all three nations as well as Ireland received infusions of capital and assistance with institutional planning. The approach worked. Their economies transformed, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain who were all emigrant-sending nations prior to EU membership, now are net immigrant-receiving nations. Today, only 2 percent of EU citizens looked for work in other EU countries.

The anti-immigrant lobby has used the politics of fear to generate much of the hysteria over immigration today. They advance the image of hordes of immigrants coming to take our jobs and commit crimes, all the while not wanting to speak English. Of course all the empirical data contravenes those myths. Yet through fear and intimidation, comprehensive immigration reform has been stalled. Fear makes us lose our conscience; fear paralyzes us; we lose our sense of analysis and reflection. Fear has led to an enforcement regime that has resolved nothing, while wreaking havoc in communities through ICE raids and increased migrant deaths resulting from the militarization of the border.

When it comes to the treatment of our fellow human beings who have crossed into our territory, we should consider what has driven or attracted them to travel before we become overly judgmental. As American culture, economic influence, political power, and military presence affect the far reaches of the globe, we cannot be too surprised at the attraction that the United States holds throughout the world. Coupled with the ubiquity of American culture, the United States appeals to would-be immigrants and refugees who seek the American dream of freedom, prosperity, and consumerism. Migrant workers, refugees, high-tech workers, multi-national executives, and familial relatives (both professionals and those from the working class) all respond to this attraction. Thus, America itself is responsible for luring countless migrants to our shores each year, as the phenomenon reinvigorates the Statue of Liberty’s call to those “yearning to breathe free.”

At the end of the day, economic investment in Mexico is what’s needed to solve the undocumented migration challenge. Reducing undocumented migration is in Mexico’s interest as well; the persistent loss of able-bodied workers needed to build its infrastructure and economy cannot be good for Mexico. Economic investment in Mexico will not and, probably, should not be done without some close monitoring. The EU enlargement policy sets certain standards for candidate countries. These criteria require a country that wishes to join the EU to meet certain political, social and economic standards. Whatever the process, we need to include investment in Mexico as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

Bill Ong Hing is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, and Professor Emeritus, at the University of California, Davis.

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