Migration and Borders: The Space for Contradiction
Published on: Aug 31, 2006

Jorge Santibáñez Romellón is president of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. He is an expert on international migration, particularly between Mexico and the U.S., and has published extensively on the subject.

United States Tolerance and the Mexican Omission

In practice, the phenomenon of labor migration works as a system of complementary components. What for one country is a process for immigrant arrivals, for the other is a process of emigration and people in transit. In order for the system to work, the logic of how these components interact does not necessarily reflect the juridical and institutional frameworks that principally should regulate people entering or leaving a country. In the Mexico-United States case, it is the receiving country’s market force demand for “convenient” manual labor (in other words: a docile, cheap, and undervalued work force) that merges with the sending country’s inability to absorb that manual labor in the home labor market. Geographic proximity and family and social networks enable the migration system to function between both countries.

During the last forty years, the concrete components of United States migration policies were essentially two: tolerance and an anti-immigration discourse. Mexico’s components, complementary to those of its neighbour, were those of omission and a pro-emigrant discourse. In fact, the United States tolerated the presence of undocumented immigrants. Many indicators back-up this statement. If real immigration control had been wanted, as examples of a simple measures that could have been taken, detention operations would have been organized before or after the Mexican band concerts or dances that take place frequently in cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago and are attended by thousands of undocumented immigrants. And employer penalties for hiring undocumented workers could have been pursued effectively. While more than ten thousand border patrol agents survey the border, less than one hundred agents patrol the work sites in the whole country. Over the years, while more than a million and a half undocumented immigrants were detained attempting to enter the United States, the number of sanctions to employers of undocumented immigrants did not exceed ten.

At the same time, the American political class, along with the media, constructed an anti-immigration discourse, presenting immigrants, above all Mexicans, as imposing disproportionately greater expenses than eventual benefits. The message was that immigrants used public education and health services, paid for by American contributors and not by migrants’ own work and taxes. In the early 90´s, California’s governor at the time, Pete Wilson, took this discourse to the extreme and promoted legislation that restricted the access of undocumented immigrants to basic public services.

Over time, the anti-immigration discourse gained power by associating migrants with other negative factors, such as drug smuggling and more recently, terrorism. It was not necessarily implied that the Mexican immigrant was a terrorist or a smuggler, but that drug traffickers or terrorists could use the same routes and networks through which undocumented immigrants enter the United States. Today, this discourse is still heard from the governors of neighbouring American states who are considered “friends of Mexico.” The shared border between both countries has been the place for tension in this two-faced game.

Since American cultural politics are obliged finally to find concrete expression in political discourse, the Mexican border was chosen as a region that should be able to illustrate a minimal congruency between the discourse and immigration’s current juridical framework. One such affirmative expression was the so-called “Operation Gatekeeper,” which was developed by the American federal government in the mid-nineties. This border control plan was instituted when the Pete Wilson discourse reached its highest popularity level, and included the construction of a reinforced wall in order to block undocumented crossings. Almost two thousand border patrol agents were brought to the border with advanced technological equipment to detect, pursue, and detain undocumented immigrants. This took place in a reduced forty kilometer area of the Tijuana-San Diego border sector through which half of the undocumented immigrant crossings occurred.

In a complementary way, Mexico had (and in a way still has) its own two-faced game. On one hand, over decades, Mexico has sustained a discourse that portrays emigrants as ¨heroes,¨ interprets increased remittances as an indicator of success, and has contributed to procedures to help the emigrants address their political rights in foreign countries. Furthermore, this discourse is combined with the absence of programs either to promote development in exit or departure regions, or, as mentioned earlier, to address the disarray in border areas, where organized crime acts with impunity and offers services associated with undocumented crossings (transportation, lodging, involvement with authorities on both sides, ¨protected routes,¨ etc.). Measures to protect emigrants have remained inadequate,1 including perfectly legal services such as those offered by some airlines, which offer “packages” to move emigrants to the north, including air transportation to Hermosillo City, taxis to the bus station, or buses to Altar City.2 All this is taking place in unison with a relatively passive reaction to the deaths of over four hundred immigrant who attempt to enter the United States each year.

The End of Tolerance?

This strategy’s consequences and visibility have been catastrophic. The crossings that once took place in urban areas began to move farther east after the construction of the reinforced wall. Previously, the guide or pollero3 who assisted the crossing generally was a familiar town member, who at first took the immigrant from the airport or bus station to the crossing point, and showed him the route. After some time the pollero began to offer different kinds of services necessary for the crossing, such as providing lodging and securing complicity with authorities on both sides. Costs for these services escalated rapidly from merely two hundred to two thousand dollars. This is how organized crime became a part this profitable activity.