Immigration Reform 2013: Fence Or No Fence, Reform Won't Work


On June 27, the U.S. Senate passed a monumental immigration-reform bill that brings new opportunities for undocumented immigrants to be integrated in U.S. society. Sharing one of the longest borders in the world with one of the most powerful countries in the globe, Mexicans have had a mixed response to the U.S. Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Right after the U.S. Senate passed the bill, the Mexican Foreign Relations Department congratulated the United States on its effort, and stated that “the immigration legal framework should reflect the region’s demographic reality. Mexico believes that public policies should be coordinated in order to enhance competitiveness, job creation, and the social welfare of the two countries.”

On the other end, the proposed strengthening of the border between the United States and Mexico — a difficult political compromise that will add 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents and complete 700 miles of fencing across the Southwest — has elicited some intense backlash from Mexicans and Latinos in the United States. Sadly, our national conversation about immigration reform is cluttered with too many talking heads spewing their hard-line rhetoric, and ignoring the one thing that should be the most important factor in solving our “broken immigration system”: the migrants themselves.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law, over 80% of the 2.2 million undocumented immigrants who applied for amnesty were of Latin American origin (70% were Mexican, 8.2% Salvadoran, 2.7% Guatemalan, and 1% Nicaraguan). The act was a comprehensive reform that was intended to be the end-all solution to the illegal immigration crisis in the 1980s (sounds familiar?).

Sadly, that was not the case. Twenty-seven years later, an estimated 81% of the United States' 11 million undocumented immigrants are of Latin American descent (and, more specifically, are from Mexico and Central America). Of those undocumented immigrants, 62% are low-income adults with household incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, and these adults are currently raising 4.1 million Latino children. One has to acknowledge the reality that immigration reform is not a just a domestic issue for the United States; it is a regional issue that needs to be confronted jointly, politically, and economically in order for all countries in North America to be successful, sovereign nation-states in the 21st century.  

Borders are the physical manifestation of the sovereignty of one’s state. If that is the case, then, an immigration policy is a legal manifestation of the state’s understanding of itself as a nation. The problem that we have here is that our current immigration reform is aimed at finding short-term solutions for a long-term problem. By physically closing the country off to its southern neighbor, the United States is turning its back on the lived realities of the migrants’ homelands — realities that are the immediate consequences of U.S. foreign policies in Latin America.

Mexico is the source of 33.7 million American immigrants, who make up the largest Hispanic-origin population in the United States, and make up 11% of the total U.S. population. This group fuels 5% of Mexico’s GDP. Mexican immigrants remit more than $25 billion a year to their families in Mexico. The Pew Hispanic Center predicts that by 2030, remittance transfers will grow to $35 billion a year. A recent New York Times article shows the power of the remittances. Competition between Western Union, MoneyGram, and other money transaction companies has dropped fees by nearly 80% since 1999.

In addition to the remittances, Mexico is the United States’ third largest trading partner, after Canada and China, with $1.5 billion worth of goods and services exchanged each day. However, while the economic benefits of trade have dollar bills shining bright in the eyes of citizens, immigrants, businesses, and national entities alike, the United States’ perception of Mexico remains negative.

In a recent study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Woodrow Wilson Center, only 20% of those polled recognized Mexico as a top trading partner. In addition, when people were asked to rate their impression of Mexico on a scale of 0-100, with 0 meaning very unfavorable, and 100 meaning very favorable, Mexico only received a rating of 43. More Americans believe that Mexico is working in a different direction from that of the United States when it comes to securing the border, combating organized crime, and cracking down on drug trafficking. Here lies the problem at hand. Our perception of relations between Mexico and the United States is not grounded in reality. We need to improve mainstream Americans' perception of Mexico. I believe that it is time that the people of the United States changed their views regarding their southern neighbor.

What we need is a “special relationship” with Mexico that acknowledges the necessity of positive bilateral public relations — a relationship that is as exceptional as the one the United States has with Great Britain. However, this is no easy task, since acknowledging reality means unraveling a turbulent sociopolitical past for Americans, Mexicans, and, most especially, Mexican-Americans who feel connected to both lands.