How U.S. immigration reform might affect México

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The last time the United States seriously contemplated immigration reform, it was also immediately after the inauguration of a new Mexican president — Vicente Fox, a business-friendly conservative whose Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) came to power for the first time in 69 years, ousting the long-governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).Mexico Flag IconUSflag

That was 12 years ago, and this time, the PRI has returned to Los Pinos with a new president — Enrique Peña Nieto.

While Peña Nieto’s administration moves forward with tax reform and business-friendly reforms of the Mexican labor and energy markets — all of which the PAN will likely support — his approach to pending U.S. immigration reform couldn’t be more different from Fox’s.

Fox came to office alongside U.S. president George W. Bush, and both had high hopes for U.S.-Mexican relations — after all, both were conservative reformers and former governors (Fox in Guanajuato in the industrial north of México and Bush in Texas along the Mexican border) with larger-than-life personalities and cowboy boots to match.  So observers on both sides of the border believed their personal chemistry and simpatico views would actually bring about a new era in bilateral good feeling.

Fox’s major address before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, marking a turning point in Mexican-American relations, in fact, came on September 6, 2001.

What happened five days later would turn the Bush administration’s attention far from México, except for security concerns with respect to potential terrorists crossing into the United States, despite Fox’s vigorous and active campaign throughout the rest of his six-year term, and thereafter, for the United States to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

This time around, net migration from México has slowed from a burst of migration activity to net zero migration, according to Pew Research’s Hispanic Center, ending or even reversing a decades-long trend:

The U.S. today has more immigrants from México alone—12.0 million—than any other country in the world has from all countries of the world.  Some 30% of all current U.S. immigrants were born in México. The next largest sending country—China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan)—accounts for just 5% of the nation’s current stock of about 40 million immigrants.

The relatively bleaker economic conditions over the past four years in the United States have much to do with the sharp decline, but there are other reasons, too — optimism over a Mexican economy that’s growing so rapidly that it is set to overtake Brazil’s economy as the largest in Latin America in the 2020s, and a half-century of declining Mexican birth rates.

Given that Fox’s approach fell flat, and in light of the relatively fewer gains for Mexican migrants north of the border a decade later, Peña Nieto’s approach has been decidedly less hands-on:

In a joint appearance, Peña Nieto told Obama that Mexicans “fully support” the idea of immigration reform but said, “More than demanding what you should do or shouldn’t do, we do want to tell you that we want to contribute. We really want to participate with you.”

Like his predecessor, the PAN-backed Felipe Calderón, Peña Nieto appears to be more interested in working with the United States on security matters, especially at a time when drug-related violence is on the decline in México, and at a crucial time for a new administration that hopes to bring a less confrontational approach to security, focused on reducing violence rather than declaring full-out war against Mexican drug cartels.

The release last week of a ‘bipartisan framework’ from a group of U.S. senators, however, makes U.S. reform more likely now than at any time during the Bush administration, meaning that the issue of immigration reform will necessarily take up more space on Peña Nieto’s agenda this year.

The framework would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States, would make it easier for immigrants to stay or come to the United States with degrees in science, math or technology, establish a guest worker program for agriculture and other low-wage work in the United States (perhaps even modeled on Canada’s own guest worker program with México, which would require closer cooperation between U.S. and Mexican authorities), the creation of an electronic tracking system for visas and stricter controls on businesses to confirm they are not using illegally sourced labor.

U.S. president Ronald Reagan passed a comprehensive immigration bill in 1986, which legalized the status of around three million illegal immigrants in the United States and also attempted to make many of the changes proposed in the current framework, though the system it established for temporary visas has proved too bureaucratic, costly and time-consuming in everyday practice.

As such, there’s no guarantee that a new approach to a more regulated system for Mexican, Central American and other immigrant labor would work any better today.

Jorge G. Castañeda, Fox’s foreign minister and a well-known Mexican public intellectual, has argued ‘net zero’ conditions may already have given way to increasing migration once again, however, and encouraged the PRI government to take  an active approach with respect to the terms of immigration reform, ‘insisting that any reform involves some kind of agreement and cooperation with México’ — not only as to facilitating a guest worker program, but also with respect to ensuring greater economic opportunity for Mexican citizens (to say nothing of additional cooperation among Mexican and Central American governments with respect to migration into México along its own southern border).

Olga Khazan and Nick Miroff, writing in The Washington Post last month, argued that U.S. reform could result in more remittances to Mexican families back home — $25 billion of such remittances in 2007 equal around 3% of Mexican GDP:

Past studies have found that legalization programs would increase immigrant wages by about 20 percent, largely because more immigrants would switch into higher-paying occupations if their status were normalized.

So conceivably, these higher-paid immigrants could increase the amount they send home, thus boosting the economy there.

But it’s not clear that all — or even most — Mexican immigrants remain oriented toward their home country after making the perilous trek north.  As the Pew Research report notes, the length of the typical stay of unauthorized Mexican immigrants is increasing — 27% of Mexicans sent home by U.S. authorities had been in the United States for a year or more in 2010, versus just 6% in 2005.

With an increasing Latino population in the United States, based both in higher birth rates among U.S. Latino citizens as well as from immigration, it seems just as likely that many Mexican immigrants will associate politically and socially more with the United States than with México.

That’s especially true among those immigrants who, having arrived in the United States as children with their parents, have spent a decade or more in the United States achieving their educations, advanced degrees in some cases, and a great deal of social capital — and one of the key questions for U.S. reform is how to treat those immigrants who, after all, have been in the United States much longer than their home countries.

But the larger consequences of immigration reform, taken together with a strengthening Mexican economy, the government’s enthusiasm for additional foreign direct investment in Pemex, the state-controlled energy company, and the free trade zone established in 1994 by the North American Free Trade Agreement among Canada, the United States and México, will be to bring standards of living in México into greater parity with those in the United States.

When you think about what a 22nd century México looks like, it’s not hard to envision a place that is less dissimilar to the United States, which itself will become increasingly Latino and, especially ‘Mexican.’  In that sense, immigration reform would be one of several tools reducing the barriers between the U.S. and Mexican culturally and economically.

With a GDP per capita of around $15,000 in México to nearly $49,000 in the United States, it’s clear that México has some catching up to do.  But the national average disguises the relative poverty of the more indigenous southern part of México — parts of the industrial north, the resort towns on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and the Distrito Federal all feature incomes and standards of living much closer to U.S. standards than the mean figure indicates.

But first, the Obama administration and Congress will have to transform the framework into workable legislation — and history has proven that won’t necessarily be easy.

When Bush attempted immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, he was met with a wave of anti-immigration (frankly, hard not to think of it as anti-Mexican) sentiment from his conservative base — former U.S. representative Tom Tancredo even launched a presidential campaign based on his opposition to immigration reform.  It remains to be seen if that anti-immigrant sentiment has receded enough to allow the Obama administration to succeed in attracting sufficient Republican support in Congress (though Republican president candidate Mitt Romney’s meager 27% support among Latino voters in the November 2012 election may have changed some minds, including the influential Cuban American U.S. senator from Florida, Marco Rubio).

More recently, Arizona governor Jan Brewer forced a showdown with the federal government over Arizona Senate Bill 1070, passed in 2010 and later struck down in part by the U.S. Supreme Court, that would have required all non-U.S. persons in Arizona to carry documentation with regard to their status and have allowed (and encouraged) Arizona law enforcement to attempt to determine immigration status not only at lawful arrests or detentions, but also in any instance where there’s reasonable suspicion that an individual is an illegal immigrant.  Although subsequently narrowed under federal law, the Arizona law struck opponents as an invitation for law enforcement to engage in racial profiling.

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