June 22, 2007

Whatever the Outcome: The Proposed U.S. Immigration Bill: A Challenge for Calderon to Practice Self-Help in Mexico

By Jenna Schaeffer

The new bipartisan immigration bill unveiled in the U.S. Congress last month would provide a dual opportunity for Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderon, to confront the “brain drain” that is robbing Mexico of much of its intellectual capital. It would also present a good opening for him to restructure the Mexican economy, in order to prevent thousands of poor Mexicans from being lured into working for drug cartels or forced to legally, or more likely, illegally migrate to the U.S. to find a job.

Each year, approximately 450,000 Mexicans immigrate to the United States in search of work, where they can earn more in an hour than in a full day in Mexico. This phenomenon comes from an inability of Mexican migrant workers to secure livable job opportunities in their home communities.

The Great Migration Debate

Although Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid withdrew the bill last week after the Senate voted not to move it to a final vote as he had called for, the measure’s militants are still optimistic and vow that the fight is far from over.

Many government officials agree with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez’s view: “We’ve got to get this through. The status quo is just unsustainable. It’s dysfunctional.”

President Calderon knows that the current U.S. immigration system is broken and that this bill’s successful passage would be a big boost to his personal legacy as well as to Mexico. President Bush noted in his weekly radio address, “Like any legislation, this bill is not perfect. And like many senators, I believe the bill will need to be further improved along the way before it becomes law.”

Tightening the Border

If in fact the proposed immigration bill becomes legislation, it would tighten the U.S.-Mexican border by securing it with 200 miles of additional vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing and 18,000 more border patrol agents. This would significantly reduce the number of foreign workers entering the United States. Even those who did manage to traverse the hostile border environment would find it much more complicated to find work because of the bill’s emphasis on workplace enforcement.

Recognizing that fewer Mexicans will be able to leave the country under the bill, Calderon’s administration will have to take the lead in providing opportunities for those who must seek a better life at home. This was an effort that his predecessor, President Vicente Fox, talked about but rarely got around to undertaking. Calderon can take advantage of the benefits that additional human capital could offer to the Mexican economy.

By creating a more positive work environment with higher wages and with constructive competition encouraged, Mexico could reap the benefits of a larger, more productive and better trained work force. Instead of this human capital being outsourced to the U.S. labor market by means of illicit immigration, it will now stay in Mexico. At the same time, Calderon needs to invest in the development of some of the poorest regions in the country like Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacán. Such initiatives, together with social programs, are certainly within reach since Mexico already has one of the highest per capita income figures-in the $7,000 range-in Latin America.

Professionals in Mexico

The U.S. immigration bill should draw attention to the problems that trigger the exodus of Mexican migrant workers and professionals in the first place. Mexico’s unemployment rate of 3-4 percent is deceptively low as it has an underemployment rate (those who while employed, are incapable of working sufficient hours to meet their economic needs) of 25 percent; 12 percent of the Mexican labor force and 30 percent of Mexicans holding PhDs reside in the U.S. With the average monthly wage of a business school graduate in Mexico amounting to only $800/month, (perhaps one-tenth of his or her North American counterpart) these professionals have every economic reason to seek occupation relocation elsewhere.

Calderon should view the proposed immigration bill as a great opportunity to insure his popularity among Mexican citizens. According to Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan, “Too many Mexican citizens leave for opportunities elsewhere and Mexico does not benefit. [Mexico] needs its intellectuals to say home… (The Mexican government) is willing to step up to the plate (to prevent this from happening.)”

Even if the immigration bill is not passed within the time frame of the present U.S. Senate session (which adjourns in August), addressing the root causes of population transfers and making it a top priority of his presidency, will help Caldron avoid the fate of Fox, who spent six years unsuccessfully trying to mitigate the massive immigration trend to the United States. Fox’s inability to secure an immigration accord with his “good friend” Bush was one of the biggest failures of his presidency.

Calderon in the Future

With the majority of his presidential term before him, Calderon has the time to create transparency commissions of scholars and activists dedicated to ameliorating the high levels of unemployment and poverty that plague Mexico. These bodies would be responsible for creating new jobs and evolving a sound employment policy to bridge the income gap, confront monopolies and provide new opportunities for the majority of average Mexicans. Ambassador Sarukham points to Calderon’s plan to implement programs to encourage young entrepreneurs and to create job training programs for those who have completed their education to ensure that Mexican workers become more competitive.

The modestly sized Mexican middle class sector is one of the factors seriously impeding Mexico’s development. The scarcity of well paying jobs greatly contributes to the ongoing Mexican emigration. With an absence of alternatives, many young Mexicans turn to drug cartels or migration for financial survival.

Thus, an important facet of Calderon’s domestic policy needs to be closing the income gap between the U.S. and Mexico. Calderon’s policy will require the political backbone to face up to the influential elites who currently dominate political power in his country, a daunting task in itself. These elites are comprised of privileged businessmen who dominate the benefits of a system of concentrated wealth.

Closing this income gap will also require spending money on educational programs and basic infrastructure development that will support a growing and dissatisfied population in impoverished areas-especially in the southern poverty belt-from where many of the would-be migrant workers come. Chiapas, for instance, one of Mexico’s poorest regions, has a literacy rate that is 20 percent below the national average.

Strong Actions and a Harsh Stance

Calderon not only faces pressure for change from the immigration bill, but also from domestic malcontents in Mexico. Fortunately, the U.S. immigration bill, with its combination of workplace enforcement and border vigilance, if passed, would provide Calderon with the opportunity to implement significant economic and social changes.

Regardless of the outcome of the proposed U.S. immigration bill, it has drawn attention to Mexico’s perilous economic situation and Calderon realizes

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