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.

With construction of the wall in the San Diego-Tijuana area and the increase of Border Patrol agents, points of crossing have shifted toward the desert and mountains, so the risks and number of deaths have considerably increased, as demonstrated in map number 1, where black crosses indicate where immigrants died in 1995, when the operation began, and red crosses indicate the locations of deaths for 2001, when the operation was working full time. In both cases, the cross size is proportional to the number of deaths in that area.

Map 1

Without realizing it, migrants began crossing over private property, which upset town residents and landowners and led them to organize anti-immigration groups.

What began in 2001 as a diversion of undocumented crossings became the establishment of a new route, with participation of legal representatives (airlines, and other services) and illegal polleros. The Hermosillo airport, located in Sonora, was reorganized to work as an arrival center for undocumented immigrants heading north, what once had been the role of Tijuana City, at the northwest of Mexico. This airport, which once provided only fifty flights per week, now arranges more than three hundred flights in the same amount of time. Other cities became centers for the concentration and distribution of undocumented emigrants. The small town of Altar, for example, is where emigrants go after arriving at the Hermosillo Airport, and from there they depart to the crossing points in the Sonora-Arizona desert, as indicated in map number 2.

Map 2

We cannot say that this process occurred with the participation of Mexican authorities, but at least we can declare that there is an ongoing omission and complicity that has tolerated the transformation of cities like Altar, located in the Sonora desert, to meet the needs of an emigrant flow in transit. If this complicity does not constitute a crime or an act that should be banned, it is clear that the polleros lead immigrants to the border in order to perform an illegal crossing.4

At the beginning of the Bush administration and in the context of the complementary relation between American tolerance and anti-immigration discourse with the Mexican pro-emigration discourse, an incipient negotiation began between the executives of both countries, one that recognized national security concerns create tension in the apparent harmony of this model. Such tension generates changes in the complementarities of border management, of which we are beginning to see the first expressions.

One of the central issues, but not the only one in this process, is a sequel to the U.S. terrorist attacks on 9-11, 2001. The assumption that the same routes used by illegal immigrants to enter the United States might be sought by the enemies of state has gained power, and the connections between national security, borders, and emigration are now evident. American society expects that its institutions know who enters, leaves, and remains in its country and for this purpose a controlled border is crucial.

Migration is no longer the central item on the agenda between Mexico and the United States. As a result of a new process of negotiations, by the end of 2005, one could see concrete expression of national security’s having become the main priority. A simplified explanation would be the following:

On the one hand, a conservative way of thinking sustains that illegal immigration is a risky process that has to be eradicated from the root by expelling close to twelve million people (almost 60% Mexican, and 80% Latin-American) that live in that condition, and imposing control on the borders, especially with Mexico, in order to stop the entrance of illegal immigrants. The House of Representatives approved in December, 2005 a proposal presented by Republican Representative Sensenbrenner that turns undocumented immigrant presence into a crime. Any organization or person assisting illegal immigrants could be charged, even family relatives whose children were born in the United States. (In fact, it could turn organizations, such as the Catholic Church, into criminals as well). The Sensenbrenner bill would increase border surveillance by building more than a thousand kilometres of reinforced border walls, increasing human and technological resources, and supplying much equipment to the Border Patrol.

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.

In a complementary way, the new scenario in the United States compels Mexico to end the omission and pro-emigrant discourse. Ideally, we can expect at least two progressive phases of new management methods concerning emigration matters. In the first phase, the objective must be the establishment of administrative procedures for the migration phenomenon, so as to provide a platform for development in a second phase that will result finally in a stable migration flow after the year 2015. This process was encompassed in the principles of the “Mexico and the Migration Phenomenon” document mentioned above.

In this perspective, it is essential to define “administrative procedure,” which at the least must include an order-control model of Mexican and Central American migration flows; protection, orientation, and assistance programs for emigrants and immigrants;  juridical and institutional frameworks; and a new model of relations with Mexican communities in the United States.

In this direction, the election of a new government in Mexico should start a process of change that leaves omission behind and replaces it with new administration and development strategies. This change would encourage the construction of serious and detailed bi-national spaces of dialogue between Mexico and the United States, as will be necessary to address the entire migration phenomenon in both countries, where the new American no-tolerance model for undocumented migration is formulated in unison with a management model in Mexico.

While perhaps not the best window of opportunity imaginable, this approach certainly reformulates the setting within which the migration phenomenon has developed until today.


1 As a part of these limited efforts, the presence of Grupo Beta should stand out, due to its assistance and rescue efforts in helping emigrants located in the desert areas. During three years, there has also been a voluntary repatriation program that works in unison with several American and Mexican government organizations, to return the emigrants, who wish to do so, back to their home countries. In fact, this is the only bi-national program concerning the migration issue over the last few years.

2 This service is offered by the airline company A Volar

3 Polleros are immmigrant smugglers.

4 The Altar residents affirm that during the governor’s campaign at the time, they requested him not to pave the highway that joins Altar City with their neighbouring town of Sásabe, because consequently the emigrants would travel directly to Sásabe, not stopping by Altar, and the city’s economy would considerably deflate. Until now, July 2006, the highway remains intact.

5 For example, the Programa Paisano, the Beta Groups, the Programa de Repatriación Voluntaria, or the Programa de Comunidades Mexicanas en el Exterior (renamed the Instituto de Mexicanos en el Exterior).

6 “Mexico and the Migration Phenomenon,” appeared as a Mexican government article in American newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as in most Mexican newspapers, on March 12, 2006, just as the migratory debate in the U.S. was living one of its most important moments.