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Obama Can Solve Illegal Immigration—Bail Out Mexico

New America Media, Commentary, Bill Ong Hing Posted: Apr 16, 2009

The White House announcement that it will tackle comprehensive immigration reform this year is good news for the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and their supporters. However, if the package does not include at least the first steps toward helping Mexico improve its economy and infrastructure, undocumented Mexican migration will not be solved permanently.

As the White House was making its announcement on reforms, however, the Border Patrol reported increased migrant border deaths along the southern border, in spite of a decrease in arrests. In other words, migrants keep coming in spite of the militarization of the border and immigration raids. While Mexicans are not the only undocumented immigrants in the country, they make up almost 60 percent. To understand undocumented migration, we have to look beyond the simple explanation that many cross the border looking for work; we have to ask why they cannot find what they want in Mexico.

Comprehensive reform no doubt will include much-needed proposals for increased family and employment-based visas. Expanding those categories is necessary and will help reduce the pressure that leads to unauthorized border crossings. But at the end of the day, reducing the substantial flow across the southern border will require the expansion of the economy and job growth in Mexico, so that more Mexicans will be able to stay home. Obama recognized this a year ago when he stated: “To reduce illegal immigration, we also have to help Mexico develop its own economy, so that more Mexicans can live their dreams south of the border.”

In 1994, we were told that NAFTA would solve the undocumented problem because jobs would be created in Mexico. But NAFTA contributed to huge job losses in Mexico. Mexican corn farmers could not compete with heavily-subsidized U.S. corn farmers, and now Mexico imports most of its corn from the United States. Because of globalization, 100,000 jobs in Mexico’s domestic manufacturing sector were lost from 1993 to 2003.

Where do those out of work farm workers and manufacturing employees look for work? El Norte.

When the European Union experienced its own push to expand its ranks to include poorer nations, member countries faced similar concerns. Because membership includes the right to open labor migration for all nationals of EU countries, the wealthier countries worried that as soon as membership was granted, there would a flood of workers from poorer nations into the wealthier ones. Beginning with the 1973 EU enlargement to include Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, the British insisted on an approach to aid poorer regions. When Greece (1981), and Portugal and Spain (1986) were added, all three nations, as well as Ireland, received infusions of capital and assistance with institutional planning.

The approach worked. Their economies transformed, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, who were all emigrant-sending nations prior to EU membership, now are net immigrant-receiving nations. Today, only 2 percent of EU citizens look for work in other EU countries.

Likewise, the United States needs to consider the EU model and include investment – with close monitoring of that investment – in Mexico as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Reducing undocumented migration is in Mexico’s interest as well; the persistent loss of able-bodied workers needed to build its infrastructure and economy cannot be good for Mexico.

At the end of the day, economic investment in Mexico is what’s needed to solve the undocumented migration challenge.

Bill Ong Hing is a professor of law at the University of California, Davis. His new book, Ethical Borders—NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration, will be published this year by Temple University Press.

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