America’s Misguided Immigration Debate

A debate on immigration is beginning in the United States Senate, which will take up several proposals. These include a hateful bill – which the House of Representatives has already approved – that provides for the construction of a wall along the US-Mexican border and makes unauthorized entry into the US a felony.

The US Senate will also consider a bill co-authored by Senator Edward Kennedy and Senator John McCain, which proposes stronger border enforcement, a temporary workers program with a path to residency and citizenship, and legalization for people already in the US without papers. Another idea is to require anyone in the US wanting to regularize their immigration status to go home and wait in line there.

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This last component is largely rhetoric; it is hard to imagine any Mexican already in the US voluntarily returning to, say, Zacatecas to wait patiently in line for a new visa. President George W. Bush has been skirting the question ever since he committed himself to an immigration agreement with Mexico when he visited President Vicente Fox in Guanajuato almost exactly five years ago.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter’s compromise proposal. Specter’s proposal also provides for reinforced security at the border, as well as a six-year non-renewable Temporary Workers Program without a path to residency, although it would allow unauthorized immigrants to remain in the US with a new, non-immigrant status. The latter status may or may not include a path to residency and citizenship; fudging the issue may be a negotiating tactic to avoid debate over whether this is a form of disguised amnesty (which, fortunately, to a certain extent, it is).

What’s missing in the debate is the Latin American context. There was a time when north-south migratory flows in the western hemisphere were limited to Mexico and the Caribbean. That changed in the 1980’s, when Central America’s civil wars sent hundreds of thousands of migrants thru Mexico to the US, and then in the 1990’s, when people fleeing violence in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador also began searching for opportunity.

Today, even Brazil, traditionally a country of immigration, has become one of emigration. Moreover, these migrants are no longer exclusively of rural origin, nor do they travel only to traditional areas in the US; they are, literally, everywhere. Their remittances contribute immensely to the economic welfare of their families, communities, and home countries’ economies.

Thus, whatever immigration policy emerges in the US will have an enormous impact south of the Rio Grande well beyond Mexico. This will occur precisely at a time when Latin America is swerving left, with country after country drifting back to anti-American, populist stances: Venezuela in 1999, Bolivia last year, perhaps Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua later this year. If the perception of further US hostility toward Latin America persists, the tilt toward an irresponsible, demagogic left will harden.

The responsible left in Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay are an exception to the emerging rule set by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez. The best way to accentuate the region’s growing anti-American sentiment is to try to close the US-Mexican border (which will be futile). Instead, the US should establish humane, secure, and legal mechanisms of temporary or permanent entry for people the American economy needs and wants, and it should work with, not against, governments in Latin America.

Five years ago, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox tried to convince Bush that something had to be done before a nativist backlash in the US complicated its relations with Latin America and made goals such as a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) impossible. But matters have gotten worse: border tensions between the US and Mexico have grown, the proposed wall has rightly provoked indignation, more unauthorized immigrants than ever are entering the US, and the FTAA has collapsed.

Bush must begin to use what political capital he has left to support enlightened immigration reform, along the lines of the Kennedy-McCain bill. He will never get a guest-worker program without Democratic support, which in turn is unlikely unless the White House supports access to a program for unauthorized immigrants already in the US that includes some type of path to residence and citizenship.

Mexico and the US must be sensitive to domestic political concerns in both countries. No immigration deal is feasible north of the border without addressing security matters; south of the border, there is no conceivable Mexican cooperation on border security or on a Temporary Workers Program if immigration reform ignores the nearly five million Mexican citizens without papers currently living in the US.

Mexico must act on what Fox has called “shared responsibility.” The best imaginable deal between the US and Mexico, or the best imaginable US immigration reform, will not eliminate the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico and South America overnight. Mexico has to assume responsibility for regulating this traffic, which means more than sealing off its southern border. The government could, for example, double welfare payments to households whose male heads stay home, threaten to revoke land reform rights after years of absence in rural communities, and establish choke points on highways at the Tehuantepec Isthmus.

Fox has said that he is willing to break with old Mexican taboos, but the Bush administration has never taken him up on it. That is unfortunate, because Fox will not be around forever.

Immigration has always been an immensely complex and delicate issue inside the US, and now for Latin America as well. A window of opportunity opened at the beginning of Bush’s first term, and closed shut after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. It is opening again and should be taken advantage of before it is too late.