Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto gives a thumbs up as he gives his first state of the nation message in Mexico City, Sept. 2. Mr. Pena Nieto opened his address by praising the passage of a key education reform just hours earlier.

Mexico's reforms are key to US immigration reform

Surprising and historic political changes in Mexico hold the prospect of reducing the American fear of future waves of illegal migrants across the border.

The US Congress returns to work this week with little prospect of passing a proposed overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws – and not because Syria and budget battles have taken the spotlight. No, the main reason lies in a common fear that more Mexicans will illegally cross the border if the ones already in the United States are given a path to citizenship.

Is that fear founded?

Not if one sees hope in the startling progress made in Mexico over the past nine months in ending partisan gridlock. An unexpected multiparty political consensus, called the Pact for Mexico and forged last December after a presidential election, has passed one reform after another with the plan to lift nearly half of Mexicans out of poverty.

The latest proposed reform, a revamp of tax policy, was released Sunday by President Enrique Peña Nieto even as tens of thousands of Mexicans protested the next big reform, an opening of the state-run energy industry to foreign investment.

Mexico’s Congress has already passed several key reforms, breaking entrenched powers in public education, broadcasting, and telecommunications while removing legal immunity for officials for criminal prosecution.

Mr. Peña Nieto calls these steps “transformational” and wisely set a deadline to finish them by the end of the year. They are aimed at raising economic growth to 6 percent from the current 1 to 2 percent while increasing revenue to build a strong social safety net.

Poor growth has been the main driver of poor Mexicans to the US – despite the strong patriotism among Mexicans. The reforms are designed to buttress that love of country so more Mexicans don’t flee – or join a criminal drug gang.

What helps account for this surprising political momentum that emerged 12 years after full democracy was restored in Mexico? Unlike in Washington, top elected leaders have formed bonds of trust for the sake of the country. They saw a political power vacuum being filled by violent drug gangs.

“We’ve all gotten to know each other very well,” Aurelio Nuño, chief of staff to Peña Nieto, told The Wall Street Journal. “You come to see each other as people, not just politicians.”

A big test will come in passing energy reforms, which require a constitutional change. Last March, Peña Nieto persuaded the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party to go along with such change – despite the PRI’s history in nationalizing the oil industry in 1938. The shift helps challenge the notion that Mexico’s identity is wrapped up in maintaining the government oil monopoly, Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.

Pemex faces a bleak future in providing the government with revenue unless it brings in foreign expertise to tap the country’s large reserves of deep-water petroleum and onshore shale gas. Without such reform, Mexico could become a net importer of oil by 2020. It already imports almost half its gasoline, despite reserves nearly as large as Kuwait’s.

Lifting up the poorest Mexicans may take years. Fewer than half of young people now finish high school. But the country has made a bold and urgent start. These reforms are the missing part of the “comprehensive” immigration reform in the US. The issue of border security – which is built on fear of more illegal immigration – may be less of an issue if Mexico continues its courageous reforms.

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