There’s a lot on the agendas of the three cabinet members and President Obama when they travel to Mexico this month to meet with Mexican officials, including President Felipe Calderon. First it’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (March 25-26), then Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (April 1 and 2), and then the President—on his way to the Summit of the Americas.
For the first time in U.S. history the full complexity and proximity of our relationship with Mexico is being dealt with at the level it deserves. Everything from drug-cartel related violence, the economic crisis, trade, security, intra-regional relations, trade, NAFTA, and immigration will be on the list of items to be discussed. And the best part is that, at a rhetorical level, the administration is approaching this with the appropriate level of partnership that the relationship deserves—a trend started with President Bush’s Plan Merida program to support Mexico’s war on narcotics trafficking.
My concern? That immigration will slip through the cracks. To be sure, the context is set to deal with it in the right way: bilaterally. But the risk is that issues like the drug violence, trade spats and the economic crisis that have dominated the media coverage (particularly the former) will crowd out one of the most important bilateral issues we face: the flow of humans across our borders that serve the U.S. labor market and—through remittances back home—provide a crucial social safety net to poor communities in Mexico.
The Bush administration made a brave and humane effort to address the issue of immigration reform in 2007, but failed. The failure resulted in a raw deal for immigrants. In what was intended to be a trade off of enforcement for documentation and a more regularized system to control the flow of migration, left immigrants with no carrot, only the stick: ramped up enforcement and the nasty, nativist backlash that the debate provoked.
Now, in this new era of partnership with Mexico, we have a real opportunity to deal with immigration between two countries that are intimately—for better or worse—connected by this issue. Not that it makes it any easier, but it can allow for a better means to deal with the need for Mexico to address its end of the equation: better control of the flow of immigrant traffic across the border and job creation and development assistance (with the help of the U.S. or the IFIs) to encourage would-be immigrants to remain in Mexico.
Ultimately, in the U.S., resolving the issue of immigration involves three elements that should be put in place simultaneously: establishing a systematic, legal means for foreign workers (temporary and permanent) to be able to fulfill the U.S.’s labor needs; creating a pathway for undocumented immigrants by paying the necessary price or penalty (whatever that may be) for having broken the law and then once paid provide a path—if appropriate—to allow them to become full legal, taxpaying citizens; and last, working with the government of Mexico and other sending countries to control the illegal flow of migrants.
There’s also the issue of integrating the large pool of immigrants into U.S. society, but that’s another issue, for another blog post.
The parade of U.S. government officials making their way to Mexico City is well-equipped to deal with this. Yet their mandates also overlap with narcotics control, security, and border enforcement. These are important issues, especially given the U.S.’s complicity in the narcotics-fueled violence.
Please let’s not forget the longer-term issue of immigration, especially as we grapple with an economic downturn that is sure to inflame social tensions even beyond where they were when Bush’s immigration reform plans sadly went down in flames.