The Mexican government cannot afford the luxury of ignoring what is happening on immigration reform in the big and powerful North. And yet, it has taken a passive attitude. There are good historical reasons for this, but not a good one today.
Within the Mexican government as well as in Mexican society at large there are two clearly differentiated positions vis-à-vis the immigration debate in the United States. Some people consider the migratory theme an internal matter of the US and some consider it a matter of national interest for Mexico. The former would prefer to put on blinders; the latter would embark upon a crusade. Each has relevant arguments to support their claim.
Those who would rather stay aloof believe that immigration is a domestic issue because it involves what is most essential to any nation: the composition of its society. A sovereign government has the authority to decide on the legal treatment of people that may have violated its laws at the very instant of entering the country or when overstaying the time permitted on an entry stamp. Those taking this position do not want to tell the US what to do because they don’t want the US to tell Mexico what it should do on this or other hot topics.
Then there are those who see the other side of the coin. More than 10 percent of the country’s population lives outside of Mexico, the vast majority of them (97 percent) in the US. This constituency is directly linked with a large part of the population (siblings, parents, children) back in Mexico. In some Mexican states, those connections represent more than half of the total number of its inhabitants. The government cannot ignore the obvious. Whatever decision the US ends up making on immigration, Mexico and Mexicans will be greatly affected. Hence, as much as the government might wish to lie low, this debate concerns vital matters that cannot be skirted.
As a result, Mexico’s government seems to be straddling both views. On the one hand, the government is preparing Mexican consulates (a network of 51 offices directly linked to Mexican communities in the US, including Puerto Rico) to inform those potentially affected of the possible legal changes – and of their rights. Second, it is actively stating its position and preferences and, most likely, proposals that would help control future flows of workers in exchange for a broad liberalization for those already in the US. Finally, it is preparing to work with communities that are most affected by migrants in order to allay fears and advance its own perspective on the matter.
A decade ago, Mexico’s government went out on a limb trying to advance legalization of those Mexicans working without papers in the US. Although there are disputes as to how advanced that process was, the fact is that September 11, 2001 ended all discussions and the then-Mexican president, Vicente Fox, was left with nothing to show for his efforts.
The current government wants neither to bet its success on decisions made in another country, nor to exert undue influence on the political process of a sovereign nation. In between these two positions, it is attempting to find a way to be a partner in the solution of a problem rather than the cause of one.
Mexico’s government needs to make the case that migrants move North because there is demand for their labor there. Since there is no welfare or unemployment support for this cohort, people go when there are opportunities. There have been no work opportunities in the last few years and, therefore, potential migrants have stayed home. If Mexico’s economy continues to improve, there will come a time when no Mexicans will move North. By the same token, as long as there is demand for low-skilled workers, they will continue flowing from Mexico or other nations. For the immigration reform to be successful, this reality needs to be incorporated into the new law.
As the Mexican economy attempts to create the foundations for a strong economic-growth era, the interest of the Mexican government is for Mexicans already in the US to secure a decent life. If that is secured as part of the US immigration-reform process, Mexico should be willing to commit to a broad migratory arrangement whereby it would control the flows of future potential migrants from or through Mexico’s territory, whether they be Mexicans or other nationalities.
Mexico's government has never attempted to manage or hinder the flows of Mexican migrants to the US, considering that it is the constitutional right of any citizen to move about unimpeded. Committing to a change in this policy would entail a radical departure from Mexico's history as well as establish a transcendent legal precedent. The government would also be committing to stem flows not only from countries that are of concern to the US – Middle Eastern and the like, which it has controlled at least since 2001 (several Mexican immigration jails are full of migrants from all continents) – but also from Central American nations that do not constitute a security threat for the United States.
If Mexico commits to stemming immigration flows to the US, it could become a major source of stability for the immigration policy that the US decides to adopt. In fact, it could help the US establish a more rational and realistic mechanism to regulate migratory flows, just as other nations, such as Canada and Australia, do.
Luis Rubio is chairman of CIDAC, Center of Research for Development, a think tank in Mexico City and a writer of more than 40 books on Mexican politics and economics. He writes a weekly column for Mexico’s Reforma newspaper.