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Migrant Lives

Across The Border - What The US Immigration Debate Means For Mexico

Some Mexican leaders say immigration reform is simply a domestic matter to be left for Washington to resolve. But the stakes for Mexico are simply too big.

At the border
At the border
Luis Rubio

When the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope was on his death bed, the doctor assured him that his breathing, pulse and other vital signs were getting better. “Here I am” Pope said to his friend, “dying of a hundred good symptoms.”

Mexico risks something very similar. When a country is small and stands next to a large and powerful one, it has no other alternative than to make adjustments when the other one changes the rules of the game. The Mexican government cannot ignore what happens north of the border: with the immigration issue very much on the table in Washington, the Mexican government must either help or stand in the way -- standing and watching with arms crossed is simply not an option.

The US is a country that was built on the shoulders of successive waves of immigrants. For almost a century and a half, immigration was by and large welcomed and promoted. This changed after 1942, with a new system of quotas introduced that turned immigration policy into an endless source of conflict for Americans.

The debate changes its form, actors and characteristics all the time, but the content remains largely the same: those who see it as a threat versus those who see it as an opportunity. The “bad guys” tend to change in time: at some point it was Italians, at another it was Jews, then Cubans and now, Mexicans.

The latest presidential elections, where Obama had overwhelming support from the Latino community, brought the issue to the front lines of the legislative agenda. Even though both points of view still exist, the legislators on each side of the aisle know very well that they cannot dodge the issue. Finally, it seems, the issue is coming to a head.

That leaves Mexico in front of a reality that appears set to change. Within the governing class, there are also two postures: those who consider the immigration issue an internal affair for the US to deal with, and those who think it is of national interest for Mexico.

For the most part, the first ones tend to prefer to turn a blind eye, and the others are on an endless crusade. The truth is that both postures have their merits, and the Mexican government must act with a smart, active but also discrete strategy.

The immigration issue is essentially an internal affair of the US in the sense that it involves the laws of a sovereign nation and the composition of its society. At stake is a government’s sovereign decision regarding the legal treatment of a population that has violated its laws. The Mexican government has nothing to offer on this count, nor can it risk trying to influence Washington's decisions. Previous failed attempts have indeed encouraged many in the Mexican government to stay far away from the issue.

And yet, we are talking about more than 10% of the population of a country who are directly linked to more than 50% of the Mexican population (parents, siblings, children); and that for some states, represents more than half of their population.

It is impossible to ignore the significance in Mexico of a decision that will be taken in the US. It is also crucial to consider the impact of the remittance payments sent to so many families in Mexico. And finally, even though unlikely, there is always the possibility of large numbers of Mexicans in the US being sent back to Mexico.

The Mexican government must develop a strategy built on the following precepts: a) it is an internal affair, so the strategy must be discrete; B) Mexico benefits from the legalization of Mexicans who live in the US today; C) those Mexicans will never serve as a political “tool” for the Mexican government; D) there are powerful sources of opposition to any liberal immigration decision that carry legitimate and respectable arguments e) the American government is very decentralized and both support and fears tend to surge “from below”; and f) this debate offers an opportunity for a meeting between the Mexican government and the immigrant Mexicans. The objective is to explain and join in the fight to show the benign effects of illegal immigrants today in the US, and reduce fear for those who risk being sent back.

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