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

Bilateral Migration Cooperation in the Contemporary Period

What might a modern bilateral immigration regime look like? Three key areas of cooperation stand out. The first pillar of new agreement could be enhanced security on and around the U.S.-Mexican border and greater collaboration on regional security issues. US migration control efforts would be enhanced by Mexican border surveillance and communication, and by increased Mexican efforts to discourage undocumented outflows and trans-migration. More importantly, Mexico could provide critical assistance in US counterterrorism efforts by allowing US agents to extend enforcement efforts beyond the border area, by assisting US efforts to pre-screen legal border crossers, and by helping the United States track potential terrorists’ movement at Mexican ports of entry and within Mexico. Joint training and enforcement practices, as well as coordinated relief efforts within the United States, could substantially improve human rights conditions along the border and reduce the number of immigrant crime victims, deaths, and injuries.

The second pillar of a bilateral migration deal could be enhanced Mexican opportunities for legal migration and protection of immigrants’ rights within the United States. Temporary immigrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation, and Mexican consuls could play an important role in contract oversight as well as in educating immigrants about their labor and civil rights. Officials within Mexico could also play a role in the recruitment and screening of temporary workers, eliminating a market for potentially exploitative private labor contractors.

The third pillar of a new bilateral immigration deal could be restoring circular migration patterns and promoting development in Mexican communities of origin as a strategy for reducing long-term push factors. Mexican programs like Tres-por-Uno, which provides federal, state, and local matching funds to supplement migrant remittances targeting community development projects offer one template; US matching funds could easily be folded into such a program. Non-governmental immigrant hometown associations have also funded development within sending communities, and a new immigration deal might emphasize public-private partnerships based on this model. Efforts to target remittances to local development projects could be combined with programs to encourage return migration by temporary workers, including potentially through withheld wages, tax-deferred savings accounts, or some type of bonding system.

It bears emphasis that while the United States and Mexico rarely have perceived mutual gains from migration collaboration in the past, recent changes would make a three-part agreement along these lines advantageous to both countries. Indeed, with 80 percent of undocumented immigrants to the United States coming from Mexico and the Caribbean Basin, and with 12,500 trucks and 660,000 passengers legally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border each day, Mexico can offer critical support to US efforts to gain control of border traffic. Geography and economic integration also make Mexico an indispensable ally in the higher-stakes effort to identify potential terrorists and track terrorist mobility in the post-9/11 era. The same factors make Mexico a critical gateway for US aspirations to greater hemispheric economic integration, a project whose prospects have dimmed in recent years, but which would be substantially enhanced by a US-Mexican immigration deal.

And whereas Mexico has traditionally viewed border-area drugs and violence as a US problem, the modern democratic Mexican state sees its legitimacy threatened by an out-of-control border, and would benefit from improved human rights conditions in particular. Indeed, these considerations have already led Mexico to make significant contributions to US counter-narcotics and migration control efforts during the Fox presidency.1  

Both countries also stand to benefit from legalizing existing labor flows, enhancing labor protections, and allowing a greater Mexican role in migration oversight. On the US side, there is growing awareness that high- and low-skilled migrants make a critical contribution to continued US growth and prosperity. Yet these gains are largely offset if migrants lack labor protections, and effective oversight of a temporary worker program is a core demand for labor unions and liberal groups supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Mexico would also benefit from improved migrant working conditions, both because emigrants are now more integrated into Mexican political life, and because improved working conditions would translate into higher migrant remittances, already more than $20 billion in 2006.

Finally, any sustainable vision of US-Mexican economic integration ultimately requires a reduction in Mexican emigration pressures and improved job creation and economic opportunities within Mexico. NAFTA has largely failed in this regard, promoting capital-intensive export growth in maquiladora production along the border, but contributing to the erosion of agricultural production in rural and central Mexico without the expected influx of new investment dollars for medium- and high-skilled manufacturing jobs. Indeed, Mexico is now the third-largest exporter of skilled labor after China and India. A new temporary worker program without incentives promoting return flows would exacerbate these trends.

Prospects for Bilateralism

As the preceding discussion make clear, the prospects for a bilateral approach to immigration policy are better today than in recent decades because the stakes are higher than ever for border and regional security and for regularized migration flows. Neither country can achieve these core migration policy goals without bilateral cooperation. Yet whether or not the demand for bilateralism generates a new agreement ultimately turns on the politics of the issue within each country.

Recent developments provide some reasons for optimism here as well. Bipartisan legislation passed by the US Senate in May, 2006 would offer Mexicans significant new immigration benefits—legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants, a new temporary worker program, and expanded permanent visa numbers—for the first time in decades. November midterm election results seemed to confirm the growing influence of Latino-American voters—who represented eight percent of midterm voters, their highest percentage ever—as well as demand for innovative immigration reform, as voters expressed support for comprehensive immigration legislation over an enforcement only approach by a margin of 57-38 percent. Hard-core immigration restrictionists lost in thirteen out of sixteen races in which immigration figured prominently in the campaign, and Democratic and Republican party leaders both moved quickly after the election to signal their support for comprehensive reform.

Political developments have been even more striking in Mexico, where a decades-old policy of demonizing emigrants and avoiding a meaningful discussion of migration policy has been replaced by an effort to deepen connections with the transnational community and to reframe migration as a bilateral policy area. This process began in earnest in 1990 with the establishment of the Foreign Ministry’s Program for Mexican Communities Abroad, and includes legislative changes in 1996 to permit dual nationality, in 1998 to permit dual citizenship, and in 2002 to permit voting abroad. Most recently, both chambers of Congress unanimously approved a concurrent resolution in February, 2006 embracing the notion of “shared responsibility” for immigration control and supporting cooperation along the lines discussed above.2

On the other hand, good prospects for immigration reform in the United States do not necessarily bode well for a US-Mexican migration deal, as the 2006 Senate bill failed to include special visas for Mexico.3  As the new Congress begins its work, all indications are that the Senate bill will continue to be the template for a comprehensive reform effort, and its passage would likely diminish the demand within the United States to negotiate a separate agreement with Mexico. And even though Mexican politicians clearly prefer to place migration on the bilateral agenda, popular support for a collaborative approach is far from assured in that country. Political analysts from across the political spectrum criticized President Fox for investing too much political capital in a failed migration deal with the United States; and a March, 2006 Zogby International/CIDAC poll found that only 52 percent of Mexicans considered good relations with the United States important to Mexico’s future. Differences over NAFTA and relations with the United States were the most important issue dividing Mexico’s two main presidential candidates in the June, 2006 election, the results of which failed to produce a consensus on the future of bilateral relations.

In light of these considerations, the opportunity for mutual gains from an immigration agreement may not be enough to bring representatives from each country to the negotiating table to work out details. Moreover, while the broad outlines of a potential deal would be unproblematic, those details would be more difficult, and would have to overcome US concerns about the trustworthiness of Mexican enforcement agents, demands from other important migration-source states for “parity” in an immigration deal, questions about migrants’ health care and retirement benefits, and disagreements about the scope of a legalization program, among other questions.

Rather than a “major immigration deal,” therefore, the more likely outcome may be that the lame duck President Bush and incoming President Calderón deepen existing institutional arrangements. Indeed, a number of existing programs already amount to the outline of a joint enforcement pillar, including a voluntary interior repatriation agreement signed in 2004, a joint counter-smuggling operation (Operation OASISS), a program to allow pre-approved entry for “trusted travelers” (the SENTRI program), and the bilateral Border Security Initiative in which US Border Patrol and Mexican Grupo Beta agents work and train together with a shared mission of reducing illegal entries while also preventing border deaths and improving humanitarian conditions along the border. The US-Mexican-Canadian Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America further includes numerous additional joint development and security initiatives, and would be a natural forum for additional collaboration, including investment in Mexican communities of origin in particular. While middle-level institution-building along these lines may offer improvements over the strictly unilateral approaches of the past, the greater potential gains from collaboration described above would require visionary leadership within both countries, and likely represents too great a risk for Bush and Calderón at this time.


1 According to the Mexican Embassy, Mexico arrested 57,000 individuals on drug trafficking crimes in 2000-2005, currently employs 38,000 civilian and military law enforcement personnel in its counter-narcotics efforts, and detained 216,000 trans-migrants in 2004 and 206,000 in the first ten months of 2005.

2 An English-language version of the document may be viewed at:


3 Indeed, a last-minute proposal to bridge the gap between the House and Senate bills offered by Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was rejected partly because it only included expanded immigration opportunities for Caribbean Basin states.