Mixed feelings south of the border on Senate immigration plan

An activist for Mexican migrants wonders if the proposal would encourage more to illegally go to the US, setting back a revival in rural Mexico.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Activists hold posters during a demonstration calling for the government of US President Obama to stop deportations of Mexican and Central American migrants, outside the United States embassy building in Mexico City, last week.

If anyone is an activist for the rights of Mexican migrants, it is Adriana Cortes, the head of the Community Foundation of the Bajio, a nongovernmental organization in the Mexican state of Guanajuato that focuses on local rural development.

So she hailed the new immigration proposal in the US Senate that would give special treatment to agricultural workers illegally in the US as the “just” product “of years of fighting,” Ms. Cortes says. But that doesn't mean she thinks it will necessarily be good for Mexico.

While the proposal is generally viewed as a score for Mexicans, who labor in American fields and food houses – and a blow to those seeking harsher penalties for illegal immigrants in the US – it is not entirely embraced from south of the border.

“From this side, I worry that yet again it will encourage Mexicans to try to make it to the US illegally, that they’ll think it will be easy to make a life there,” says Cortes. "But the conditions on the border aren't going to change." Cortes says she's seen great progress in rural Mexican communities in recent years as migrant workers illegally in the US returned home, injecting their communities with new skills and expertise.

The Senate proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, which includes clauses to secure the border and grant paths to citizenship for millions of undocumented migrants already in the US, is expected to face stiff resistance in the States. Many of its points have been hotly debated and struck down for years as immigration reform has stalled. But it has brought hope to many in both the US and Mexico for its nod to the reliance of the American agricultural industry on undocumented immigrants.

“Individuals who have been working without legal status in the United States agricultural industry have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply while earning subsistence wages,” the proposal reads. “Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population.”

The proposal has drawn praise from growers’ industries in the US. Tom Nassif, Western Growers President and CEO, praised senators from both parties who unveiled the plan Monday: “We have worked for years with Senators McCain and Flake on a solution for the immigration crisis facing agriculture. We applaud them for developing these principles and look forward to working together with them along with Senators Feinstein and Rubio to ensure the agriculture piece of this critical legislation addresses our industry’s concerns once and for all.”

But if it’s a boon to US agriculture, it might not bode well for agriculture south of the border.

Cortes works on local development in about a dozen communities in Guanajuato, helping rural Mexicans establish micro-enterprises in their communities so that they don’t have to emigrate to the US.

The Monitor visited one of those communities, Tamaula, at a time when US and Mexican demographers were counting “net zero” immigration to the US. In this tiny town, residents were returning home after years of working on farms and in US chicken processing plants. Armed with experience, older men and women have brought back new technologies for the fields. Young men, who once saw emigration as their only option, have been staying put, testing out the viability of a life at home, where, with opportunity, the vast majority would prefer to stay.

“There’s been much less emigration in recent years,” says Cortes. “That is what we consider success.”

Now, she says she wonders, how much that recent success will be tested.

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