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

The proposed bill unintentionally created a social reaction of considerable proportions, leading thousands of immigrants, their families and pro-immigration organizations to publicly demonstrate their rejection of the approved proposal and demand regularization of their migration status. The spontaneity and authenticity of this movement has drawn the attention of American society, and changed the course of the migration debate.

On the other hand a more liberal way of thinking has come into play, one that, without downplaying security priorities, responds to the demonstrators’ demands, and considers a model of security that may harmonize with the need for foreign manual labor. It additionally creates a proposal, finally approved by the United States Senate, that includes the reinforcement and increase in border surveillance, a provision for the regularization for undocumented immigrants present in the United States, and the creation of a temporary work permit for new and necessary immigrants. As of August 2006, these two bills approved by the different chambers of the Congress are waiting reconciliation.

At a minimum, the issue of enhanced border surveillance is addressed in both proposals. Because President Bush favors a temporary work permit, hoping to strike a bargain that will bring both positions closer together, he made an “advance payment¨ of reinforcing border surveillance. He called up the National Guard to provide backup to border enforcement and presented to the American society the idea of an insecure Mexican border. Although final legislation must still be approved by the American Congress, it is nevertheless already evident that the time for tolerance is ending. The Mexican border will be closely surveilled, with known effects: an increase in organized crime related to the illegal transit of undocumented immigrants, increasing risks and vulnerability for the people, new route formations, and increasing tension in the border areas.

The End of Omission?

Early in the Fox and Bush administrations, in 2001, what was probably the only attempt to alter the complementary migration system between the two nations addressed the migration process as a part of the overall relationship between both countries. The governments charged a prominent group of people with working on this issue and proposing new management methods. Mexico placed a new proposal on the agenda, colloquially known as the “whole enchilada," which consisted of the bi-national approval and implementation of: the regularization of undocumented workers who are resident in the United States, a program extending temporary permits to workers who eventually could progress toward citizenship, a visa extension program, a new management of the shared border, and the development of areas of urban emigration.

While innovative, the Mexican strategy had serious limitations. The negotiations took place with and depended exclusively upon the American executive even though it is the Congress that plays the most important role in establishing U.S. immigration policy. Further, even if the negotiations had been successful, Mexico was not (and still is not) institutionally prepared to orchestrate a “migratory agreement.”

Despite this unsuccessful effort in the early Fox administration and other small and essentially reactive programs,5 Mexico has been structurally omissive in the management of the migration phenomenon over all and concerning Mexican emigration in particular. Many factors explain but do not justify this matter. The migration phenomenon is not “politically rentable.” No government can present as an indicator of its successful development model that millions of citizens have had to leave their country because it does not offer them the conditions they need. In addition, because of its complexity, any efforts to affect emigration would begin to pay off only in fifteen to twenty years. The Mexican government’s institutions are not yet worrying about such a distant future, and in addition, as immigrants have been tolerated in The United States, the attitude has been, why do something?

On the other hand, the demographic and economic scenario indicates that the Mexican emigrant flow over the next ten or fifteen years will continue at today’s level. In the year 2015, the majority age group will be between 15 and 34 years old. This means that 40 million young people will be searching for jobs and may be candidates for emigration as well. (In the year 2050 there will only be 28 million people in that age group, laying much less pressure on the work force.)

Nevertheless, aside from any ethical, demographic, or economic considerations, the end of tolerance in the United States obliges Mexico to modify the structured omission it has maintained until now as its part in the complementary migration system.

The force that the national debate has gained over the last few years has attracted more attention from Mexican society, not only from the government, but also from other relevant leaders within the Mexican Congress, civil society, the academy, and the media. As a result of the Mexican Senate’s and the government’s initiative, which has included a number of meetings between various groups of participants in diverse social sectors, there has evolved what might be called the new Mexican position regarding the migration phenomenon.

The discussions have considered aspects of migration that have been ignored until now – the procedures of emigrant entry, exit, return, and transit – and have taken a regional perspective that includes Central America, with the recognition that Mexico should clearly assume responsibilities with regard to some procedures including the organization of internal transit and migratory flows, the fight against organized crime linked to undocumented immigrant crossings, and the revision of obsolete juridical and institutional frameworks that will allow the better management of the migration phenomenon. This position has been elaborated in a documented entitled “Mexico and the Migration Phenomenon.”6

A Window of Opportunity?

The logic of security and territorial preservation that underlies the American government’s and the Congress’s course of action crucially questions the complementary migration model, necessarily reduces the space for tolerance of the presence and arrival of undocumented immigrants and, unfortunately, makes way for an increase in border surveillance. Because of these factors, the tolerance/anti-immigration discourse has ended. The concrete outcomes of this transformation, which will be unveiled at the final stage of this process, have yet to materialize.  Halfway through 2006, it was thought that “migration reform” would combine the following: an increase in border surveillance, a progressive regularization of undocumented immigrants in the United States, and an eventual temporary-worker permit for new immigrant arrivals. But during the second half of 2006, the only element that seemed certain to appear in the new formula is border security.