The United States and Mexico: Prospects for a Bilateral Migration Policy
Published on: Mar 08, 2007

Rosenblum is associate professor of political science at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of numerous articles for professional journals and The Transnational Politics of U.S. Immigration Policy (University of California, San Diego Center for Comparative Immigration Studies). In 2006 he served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Immigration Subcommittee. 

On July 2, 2000, Vicente Fox became Mexico’s first democratically-elected opposition president, and almost made good on a campaign promise to re-examine US-Mexican migration relations by proposing that the countries of North America begin eliminating controls on regional labor flows. The idea of a common market fell on deaf ears within the United States, but George W. Bush also emphasized immigration in his campaign, and as president he proposed that the United States match willing Mexican workers with US employers. Migration was at the top of the agenda when President Bush made Mexico his first international destination in February, 2001; and Bush and Fox met four more times in the next seven months, before announcing on September 5, 2001 that they had reached agreement on a framework for a major bilateral immigration deal based on “shared responsibility” for orderly migration flows.

The terror attacks of September 11 derailed this progress, and U.S.-Mexican relations deteriorated during the remaining years of Fox’s sexenio as Mexico failed to support the US invasion of Iraq within the U.N. Security Council. Plans for a major bilateral agreement were never finalized, and many Mexicans grew frustrated as the Bush administration failed to resume high-level talks, even after promising to revisit the issue during the 2004 presidential campaign.

Yet recent events in both countries raise new questions about the viability of a future immigration deal. What might a bilateral migration deal look like? And what are the main obstacles to a bilateral approach? This paper examines the history of US-Mexican migration relations in the twentieth century, and explains why cooperation has been so difficult in the past. I then examine changes within both countries and in the international environment that make the prospects for a collaborative immigration policy more promising now than at any point in the last sixty years. Nonetheless, significant obstacles also remain in place, including conflicting priorities about the details of a potential agreement, political obstacles within each country, ambiguity about the broader strategic costs and benefits of a bilateral migration deal, and institutional design problems. Thus, the most likely outcome in the immediate future is continued middle-level institution-building, rather than a breakthrough agreement.

Unilateralism and Bilateralism in Historical Context

Despite a long history of shared culture and geography, and despite migration patterns that long pre-date the modern border, neither the United States nor Mexico have consistently pursued cooperative approaches to managing migration. Indeed, the first five years of the Bracero Program (1942-1964) are the only clear bilateral success. More typically, actors in one or the other country—or both—have seen their national interest in migration best met through unilateral policy choices; and migration relations have often been a source of conflict.

Conflict in the early twentieth century concerned competition to control Mexican labor flows. With Mexico experiencing regional labor shortages after its bloody revolution, and with Mexican elites favoring a labor-intensive development strategy, the state discouraged emigration and actively encouraged return flows. These economic considerations were reinforced by ideological and security concerns in the wake of three US invasions of Mexico since the 1840s. As a result, Mexicans resented unilateral US recruitment of “guest-workers” during World War One, especially because US employers often failed to uphold their end of guest-worker contracts. Conflict intensified under the nationalist Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas when over a million Mexicans—as well as many US citizens of Mexican descent—were rounded up and summarily deported to Mexico during the Great Depression.

World War Two marked a turning point for US policymakers because labor shortages took on immediate national security implications, and a decade of Mexican out-migration during the 1930s had disrupted traditional circular migration patterns, making unilateral recruitment unreliable. At the same time, Mexico had responded to a US boycott of Mexican oil in 1938 by forging a commercial alliance with Germany; and Mexico’s loyalty to the United States in the coming war was far from certain. Thus, the Roosevelt administration resisted growers’ demands for a World War One-style guest-worker program, and instead directed diplomats to negotiate a bilateral agreement to ensure American access to Mexican workers, and also to bring Mexico into the allied war effort. Under the resulting “Bracero” agreement, Mexican workers were guaranteed a minimum wage (unlike American farm-workers) as well as transportation, housing, and health benefits. In contrast with the World War One system, Bracero contracts were generally adhered to, with Mexican consuls in the United States playing a direct oversight role, and with the Roosevelt administration siding with Mexico over US employers in a series of contract disputes during the war.

Aggressive enforcement of Bracero contracts ended after 1948, and cooperation remained elusive for the next five decades. First, the bilateral Bracero agreement was renegotiated a half-dozen times by 1954, and the mature version of the program put in place at that time was highly exploitative of Mexican workers. Even so, Mexican policymakers valued access to US labor markets and sought a new agreement after 1964 only to be rejected by the Johnson and Nixon administrations. This pattern reversed in the 1970s when then US Presidents Ford and Carter saw a migration deal as a way to obtain privileged access to Mexican oil. But by this time Mexico was satisfied with a laissez faire migration system, and refused the American overtures.

Increasing undocumented immigration throughout this period led to new migration control efforts. But with U.S.-Mexican relations strained by conflicts over the Central American civil wars, Mexican involvement in the US drug trade, Mexican electoral scandals, and Mexico’s debt crisis, neither country saw migration cooperation as a viable alternative during the 1980s; and Mexico refused an invitation to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the debate over the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Labor flows were likewise omitted from North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations. And both countries have mainly emphasized unilateral migration policies since this time, including through separate approaches to policing the border (with Mexico focusing on human rights rather than migration control) and separate programs to identify Mexican migrants within the United States (with the United States focusing on removal and Mexico on political mobilization).

Yet the nearly simultaneous inaugurations of Carlos Salinas and George Bush in 1988-89 represented a turning point in the broader relationship as both countries sought to repair strained relations. Thus, aggressive US enforcement at the border since the mid-90s has been combined with a series of small-scale bilateral programs to improve border-level communication, cooperate on the logistics of migrant removals, improve humanitarian conditions in the border area, and target development dollars to high emigration areas. Mexico’s successful engagement with the United States on the NAFTA agreement and the increasing mobilization of Mexicans within the United States have also encouraged new efforts by interest groups and by Mexican politicians to abandon the presumption that migration policy is simply a sovereign US policy area, and to reframe the issue as a legitimate subject for bilateral discourse.

Migration Cooperation: Obstacles and Opportunities

Why has successful collaboration been such an unusual policy outcome? On one hand, policymakers in both states confront domestic political obstacles. In Mexico, the revolutionary state’s founding mythology emphasized economic nationalism and independence from the United States. And in the United States, even though pro-immigration interest groups have often dominated the policymaking process to prevent effective migration restrictions, they have rarely viewed Mexico as an ally in this fight, and migrants themselves have often been victims of the resulting policy compromises.

More surprisingly, collaboration has historically offered limited substantive benefits. The early Bracero years were exceptional because broken migration networks and limited transportation infrastructure made the United States dependent on Mexico for reliable access to labor, and Mexicans were able to demand genuine labor protections in return. Once market-based circular migration flows resumed in the 1950s, and labor protections were effectively eliminated from the Bracero Program after the Korean War, the only benefit of collaboration was the veneer of a formal state role in regulating migration. Mexico’s rejection of an oil-for-guest-workers deal in the 1970s reflected the knowledge that Mexicans could work in the United States with or without a visa, and the skepticism that legal access protected immigrants’ rights. Similarly, US policymakers saw no reason to take on the political costs associated with a new bilateral regime in the 1960s when access to immigrant labor was already assured.

Migration relations have also been highly sensitive to changes in the broader bilateral, regional, and global context. US military vulnerability in 1942 (and 1951) enhanced Mexican bargaining power partly because US planners saw a migration deal as a key element of a stable regional relationship. And the Kennedy administration maintained the Bracero program over domestic objections in 1961-64 in support of its Alliance for Progress program in Latin America. Burgeoning economic cooperation beginning in the 1990s has similarly been a key element of the modest institutional development underway since that time. Conversely, strained relations undermined opportunities for migration cooperation under the nationalistic Luís Echeverría and José Lopez Portillo regimes during the 1970s and during the confrontational Reagan years.