A day after thousands of immigrants – undocumented and not – marched on the National Mall in Washington to demand immigration reform, activists in the US hope the turnout will revive a debate that has fallen by the wayside since an immigration overhaul failed in 2007 under then-President Bush.
But in Mexico, where the march made front-page news and where it seems everyone knows somebody who has migrated north, people here are skeptical about the US commitment to comprehensive immigration reform.
President Obama addressed the crowd of immigrants and activists, numbered in the tens of thousands, via a giant screen, underlining his support to get a new law passed.
“I have always pledged to be your partner as we work to fix our broken immigration system, and that’s a commitment that I reaffirm today,” Mr. Obama said.
But as he spoke, Washington was scrambling to push through healthcare reform, overshadowing the immigration debate, as have so many other issues – such as the fight against organized crime in Mexico – during Obama’s first year in office.
“The US cares more about drug violence than immigration reform,” says Federico Gonzalez, a retired government worker in Mexico City who says he has little faith that a new immigration law will be on the books any time soon. “It is always the same. [US presidential candidates] promise it during their campaigns, and then they do nothing.”
Focus on drug trafficking
The US-Mexico relationship has been defined by the fight against drug trafficking, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduled to visit Mexico City Tuesday to discuss the Merida Initiative, the aid package to help Mexico battle its deadly cartels.
But while US priorities might be on security, for many Mexicans, their main wish is legal status for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
“There are so many Mexicans who have lived many years in the US. [Obama] discussed doing something about this in his campaign. But now he does not touch it,” says José Barrios, a priest in Ciudad Juarez from Casa del Migrante, an organization that helps Mexican migrants. “The North American does not value the Mexican hand of labor.”
Immigration reform has eluded US politicians for years, dividing those who want migrants on a path to citizenship and those who call them law-breakers who must not be rewarded for having crossed illegally into the US.
The rally Sunday came amid a new proposal floated by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D) of New York and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, last week. It includes a requirement for biometric Social Security cards to ensure that undocumented workers cannot get jobs. It also would strengthen border security, employment opportunities for temporary workers, and lay out a tough path for legalization for those already here.
In 2007, former President Bush supported a proposal that would have also established a path to citizenship, but it was widely criticized as an amnesty. The proposal failed.
Obama had promised to address immigration reform in his first year in office, but the healthcare debate and foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan have so far eclipsed the issue.
Immigrants’ rights activists and supporters have been frustrated by how little attention an overhaul has received. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois was quoted as saying at the rally Sunday: "The wait is over. The time is now,” he said. "We're ready to turn our hope into victory."
Some Mexicans agree, though they say no reform will come soon, or easily. “The US will have to make a reform, the country each day is comprised more and more of Mexican migrants,” says José Luis Sandoval, a photographer in Mexico City. “Even if Obama does not want to do it, the country will have to.”
Still, Dan Lund, a pollster and president of The Mund Group in Mexico City, says that immigration reform, which he believes will be a priority, might not ultimately favor Mexico.
Those in the US who receive a path to citizenship become voters. "Fundamentally that is Mexico’s loss," says Mr. Lund "to not have anything to draw back the 8.5 million men and women of talent.”
A left-leaning legislator in Mexico, José Torres Robledo, said Sunday that Mexico should not just be a “mere spectator” as debate gets under way.
“We believe that [the government] shouldn’t fall into the excess of celebrating [too early], or standing by idly, since immigration reform will help prevent the deaths of about 700 Mexicans each year when they try to cross over to the United States,” he was quoted as saying in the local press.
“We believe that the proposal by Democrat Charles Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham is an important step,” Mr. Torres said. “But we can’t count our chickens before they hatch, as [former President] Vicente Fox did, who celebrated a reform that never passed.”