The Immigration Bomb Explodes

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  • President Bush travels to Cancún for U.S.-Canada-Mexico meeting as Harper awaits to accommodate Washington and Fox struggles to salvage the remnants of his presidency.
  • When he meets tomorrow with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, Bush has the opportunity to help repair battered ties with Mexico as well as Canada, that were damaged by the State Department’s policies of hemispheric neglect.
  • Mexican president Vicente Fox can perhaps finally advance the immigration issue, which has been mainly moribund since the September 11 attacks, as the topic has finally migrated from the margins to center stage in Washington.
  • Immigration is a bilateral issue very much involving Mexico, and must be addressed as such, with comprehensive strategies that treat not just the symptoms (illegal workers in the U.S.) but the illness as well (Latin America’s lack of inclusive economic growth).
  • The current U.S. immigration measure that now is going to the Senate floor for debate offers a more constructive building block than previous proposals, but a highly polemic debate lies ahead.
  • Fox, whose failures to achieve immigration reform have been the defining mark on his presidency, must take concrete steps to promote more effective immigration related policies in his own country.

Rarely have U.S.-Mexican relations received the sort of public scrutiny that the currently raging immigration debate is now attracting. But the problem, fostered by years of diplomatic indolence and half-measures, now demands an approach that boldly confronts associated problems on both sides of the border, if a sustainable path forward is to be found. Although Thursday’s summit among Canadian Prime Minister Harper, and Presidents Bush and Fox in Cancún, will likely be dominated by talk of immigration plans, these are unlikely to produce a major agreement, let alone a breakthrough.

A Long Stewing Issue
The immigration issue has been propelled to the forefront of public debate in recent weeks. A harsh House bill that included the incendiary proposal to construct a nearly 700-mile long border wall helped incite a wave of protests, which culminated in a 500,000-strong march in Los Angeles on March 26. Further raising the issue’s profile has been the unchecked wave of drug and gang violence in Northern Mexico, which has prompted concerns pertaining to spillover and the thought that the wall might come to be defended as serving the dual purpose of blocking both migrants and drugs. With the topic of immigration now becoming the key election season issue in many U.S. border areas as well as further inland, the debate has often veered from measured approaches towards reckless policies.

Overall, the current debate largely lacks the required degree of depth or relevance. Illegal immigration to this country is not a new phenomenon, yet it has never been addressed with consistent and comprehensive policies. Successive administrations have pursued policies that sought to interdict migrants at the border, but permitted almost non-existent enforcement of hiring practices throughout the rest of the country. And even the front lines were thinly manned: last March Bush proposed hiring only a tenth of the 2000 new border patrol agents he had originally sought in a 2004 intelligence bill. This was not unintentional, as the steady stream of cheap labor proved beneficial for employers and consumers alike, and such easy alternate solutions proved irresistible for White House staffers. Labor unions appreciated the new recruits, and accepted that while there was no shortage of labor in the country, there was an insatiable market for cheap, disposable labor. A push-pull equation was at work here, where illusion was substituted for the facts on the ground which told the story that if you made it over the border – and nearly all those who survived to persist in their efforts eventually did – there was virtually no likelihood that you would be apprehended, because this was the way the Chamber of Commerce and its membership wanted it to be.

Moreover, when natural disasters struck Central America, creative policymakers chose to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to illegal migrants from the affected areas, substituting the remittances of those workers for large scale U.S. government aid, which the Bush administration wanted to avoid at all costs. In effect, illegal immigration was driven by demand and tolerated by politicians who found it more expedient to avoid the issue than to confront it.

The New Impulse
If illegal immigration had been a dirty secret in the past, it is now at the center of the U.S. political debate, and forces arrayed along the entire ideological spectrum have laid out proposals on the subject. Hard-right groups, such as the freelance border patrolling “Minutemen” (a band even President Bush referred to as “vigilantes”) and their legislative equivalents, Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), have failed to put forth anything approximating a rational proposal. Yet holding the middle ground has been a difficult task. The bill produced by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and backed by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ), is a constructive attempt at balance that has been hailed throughout Latin America as a positive step. But there is a rough legislative path ahead for such attempts at moderation. Even Senator Arlen Spector (R-PA), who voted in favor of the Judiciary Committee bill that eventually was approved by his committee, acknowledge that a fierce debate remains to be faced. The bill, which offers illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. an inviting path to citizenship, has been blasted by right wing activists – including the Washington Times – as offering “amnesty.” Yet the bill’s proponents steer away from the dreaded “A” word, insisting that their version is something else. Tancredo has already vowed that the Senate Judiciary Committee’s measure would never pass the House.

A Border has Two Sides
A new impulse to tackle the immigration issue could offer a fresh opportunity for a more dignified reworking U.S.-Mexican bilateral relations, which previously were almost entirely based on the policies concerning the flow of migrants. But a balanced reform of U.S. labor and migration codes is only one step, with several others being of equal necessity. Conditions affecting emigration to the U.S. are perhaps the dominant domestic political issue in Mexico and Central America, and if the Bush administration successfully calls for the implementation of responsive, as well as effective reforms, it will go a long way towards repairing relations with the region.

Washington must still go further than that, however, and attempt to address the root causes that drive people to the difficult decision of migrating illegally. Disappointingly, the region’s historic underdevelopment has not been solved by a globalizing economy, and the lack of inclusive economic growth has become an endemic problem. The free trade accords that the Bush administration so tirelessly promotes do little to remedy such maladies, as both NAFTA and CAFTA-DR leave regional agricultural sectors profoundly vulnerable, as well as disadvantaged, in the face of robustly subsidized U.S. agro-business that enables Iowa to undersell Mexico when it comes to corn. Given that many illegal migrants originate from economically devastated rural areas in Mesoamerica, that these trade agreements that are not intrinsically win-win in their design will do little to rectify the underlying corrosive situation. While its proponents argue that free trade will stimulate the creation of industrial jobs, the resulting low-end maquiladora industries are unstable and ephemeral, frequently flee to China, and offer only poorly-paid employment with little hope of advancement – hardly a recipe for removing the incentives to emigrate.

Profiting from Privation
Mexico too must confront the immigration question and not wink and then throw up its hands. Since the Salinas administration, Mexican leaders have pursued ruinous policies that have helped lead the country’s traditional rural sector to collapse, encouraging the depopulation of the countryside in the hopes of promoting the establishment of large-scale agro-business. But that policy has failed to feed the country – Mexico remains a net food importer – and a carefully crafted “escape valve” for displaced rural workers put into place by Salinas and utilized by all Mexican presidents since, is now likely to be shut off. Furthermore, Mexican leaders have become reliant on remittances, which have surpassed oil revenues as the country’s most important economic inflow, and have allowed illegal migration to stand in for meaningful job creation and welfare at home.

There is much the Mexican government can do to encourage its citizens to remain in the country, and a resolution adopted by the Mexican congress in February recognizes that, noting that “a large number of Mexicans do not find in their own country an economic and social environment that facilitates their full development and well-being.” The document proposes incentives such as tax breaks for migrants building homes in Mexico, a “bilateral medical insurance system,” a plan which would allow immigrants in this country to receive their U.S. pension benefits in Mexico, and suggests reforms to the Labor and Social Development Ministries to encourage migrants to return to their homeland.

Enticing migrants back to the country may be one step, but ensuring inclusive long run economic growth that will eliminate the baleful factors of poverty and unemployment that drive illegal immigration in the first place is a larger challenge, and one which requires an examination of the country’s macroeconomic strategies. Instead of viewing illegal immigration as a convenient solution to a tough problem, Mexican policymakers must now overcome their chronic fatigue when it comes to solving that country’s persistent inability to ensure the basic welfare of its citizens.

The cresting public attention on the immigration issue coincides with tomorrow’s meeting between the leaders of the three NAFTA countries in Cancún, where the topic will be undeniably one of the two or three themes that are certain to dominate the discussion. The meeting is also something of a last gasp for lame duck President Fox, whose stature in office is dwindling at a faster tempo than the rapidly approaching July 2 elections. A reform of immigration policies was supposed to be Fox’s crowning achievement when he came into office in 2000, as the fresh start afforded by new administrations in both Mexico City and Washington seemed to offer a prime opportunity to hammer out a sweeping accord. But the September 11 attacks crushed that promise and diverted the Bush administration’s gaze from the needs of its southern neighbors. Since then, Fox has struggled to achieve progress on pressing domestic issues, faltering on such questions as security and employment. Additionally, Fox has accomplished almost nothing on pressing border issues, particularly reining in the out-of-control drug cartels, a step which would have helped calm tensions in the U.S. communities bordering Mexico.

At the Cancún reunion, a forlorn Fox will once again pose for photo ops with his fair-weather friend, the U.S. president, in the hollow hope that this time he will be gaining something more concrete in return. After a stint in the presidency that has left him as battered as the hurricane-ravaged Mexican host city, Fox is now in desperate need of a political trophy worthy of bolstering his sagging image and polish the truncated legacy he likely will leave behind amidst a round of deprecating laughter. And while the current attention on the immigration question would seem to make this a prime opportunity to negotiate an agreement, Fox lacks the momentum and his U.S. counterpart lacks the political capital to predictably achieve a successful resolution on the issue, making the summit encounter likely to once again promise far more than it’s able to deliver.

The hard truth is that Bush cannot credibly offer Fox much of anything, even if he was inclined to do so, as he simply does not control the high ground on immigration, as his right-wing base has rejected the more moderate policies that he has proposed and the left has its own problems with the issue. Yet a good faith effort, while not enough to salvage Fox’s legacy, would be a constructive step. And Bush – who in an exclusive interview with famed José Carreño, Washington correspondent of the highly regarded Mexico City daily El Universal, declared his openness to working with whoever wins Mexico’s July presidential election – could himself use some positive momentum coming from the south.