Immigration bill and Obama's trip to Mexico: Why the two are linked

President Obama's trip to Mexico will help better integrate the two economies. And a piece of the Senate immigration-reform bill focuses on integrating the mainly Mexican population of undocumented immigrants. Each country must respect the other's sensitivities on these two integrations.

Guadalupe De La Torre, from Mexico, waits with over 5,000 other immigrants during a naturalization ceremony to become new American citizens in Los Angeles April 16.

President Obama makes a two-day trip to Mexico this week with the hope of better integrating the US economy with that of its southern neighbor. He describes commercial ties as already “massive” and “huge.” This is thanks in part to two decades of reform in Mexico. That effort has quickened under a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Mr. Obama’s trip should help nudge these improvements along.

At the same time, Obama just endorsed a bill in the Senate that would, among other things, provide better ways to integrate the largely Mexican population of 11 million illegal immigrants into American society – assuming the bill passes and the undocumented workers obtain legal status. Its passage is hardly assured.

Taken together, the president’s trip and the immigration-reform bill are forcing Americans to come to grips with Mexico and Mexicans in ways not seen since the controversial passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.

This is why these two steps toward better integration – closer commercial ties and the possible assimilation of millions of Mexicans into American society – require careful attention. Both countries must be sensitive to each other’s national identity, their checkered bilateral history, and mutual economic benefits.

NAFTA helped create a favorable view of Mexico among Americans after decades of unfavorable views. But the perception has gone negative since 2010, according to polls, caused in part by news about Mexican drug-gang violence. Both Obama and Mr. Peña Nieto hope to change those views by focusing attention away from the security issue to economic opportunities.

“We don’t want to define this relationship with Mexico ... in the context of security or counternarcotics trafficking,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry last month.

The Obama trip also points to an often-overlooked solution to the US immigration problem – a healthy Mexican economy that keeps its poorest people from migrating north for work. One key indicator of recent progress: Mexico’s fertility rate had dropped dramatically from 6.7 percent a half century ago to 2.2 percent, or a rate close to that in the United States. More Mexicans feel secure with fewer children.

Illegal border crossings have also dropped in recent years because of a better Mexican economy as well as tougher US border enforcement and fewer low-wage jobs in the US. If tight border security becomes permanent and Mexican reforms continue, the US will inevitably need to deal with its large population of illegal immigrants, who are mainly Mexican and Central American. Many are here to stay no matter what.

The proposed Senate bill provides new but modest programs and money ($20 million) to improve the integration of immigrants into the US. Much more needs to be done, however, to speed up assimilation – in civics education, teaching English, and job training. Recent studies show that third-generation Hispanics in the US have a lower income than their parents.

Historically, immigrants in the US have been left to fend for themselves. In a few cases – such as the two Chechen brothers who are suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings – this can end in disaster. Most immigrants, however, become American in many ways. With the prospect of legalizing 11 million new immigrants, this process obviously needs more money and focus.

Even if Congress doesn’t pass the whole bill, it can at least beef up current integration programs. Community colleges are especially suited for this purpose.

Mexico is rightly sensitive to how the US treats it, just as Americans are rightly sensitive to how Mexicans will integrate into the US. Obama can help Peña Nieto in his ambitious reforms – on Mexico’s terms. And Mexicans who seek legal residency in the US can, as Alexander Hamilton (an immigrant himself) stated, “acquire American attachment: to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government.”

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