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.

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.