By Matt M. Joye
2014 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which broke down barriers to trade between Mexico and the U.S. Currently, negotiations are underway over a new agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would create a 12-nation trade bloc that would include both countries, in turn raising questions about immigration reforms. Many of these are a legacy of the unfinished promises of NAFTA. Yet within the U.S. there is little hint of an international—or even regional—perspective on immigration across the southern border. The difference between political and economic borders notwithstanding, the debate over immigration, particularly when it involves Latin Americans, is viewed strictly from one side of the fence.
The debate over immigration in the U.S. is far from a congenial discussion of uniform opinions. For Republicans, the issue has become a metaphorical inquisitor’s rack. Party strategists are caught between long-term shifting demographics of the country, and the short-term interests of congressmen whose seats are under threat—not from a rise in Latino voters, but by primary challengers who appeal to the G.O.P.’s traditionally anti-immigration base . In this light, House Speaker John Boehner’s statements that immigration reform would have to wait until after the November elections can be seen a blatant attempt to squeeze between these two oppositional forces. The Economist put the issue in different terms, calling the Republican policies on illegal immigration “the nativist millstone” that threatens to drown the party .
This is not to suggest that the Democrats are thinking outside the border either. Indeed, the main talking points for both parties center on the questions of border security and what to do about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. already. Obama recently signaled that he was not wedded to a “special path to citizenship” for those who entered the country unlawfully, though he previously supported a Senate bill in 2013 that created just such an avenue. It failed to become law because it couldn’t garner enough support to pass the House. “Amnesty” has become “the bogeyman of conservative politics,” a sure-fire way to raise alarm among your constituency, but an impediment to serious discussion of the issue, leading to a search for euphemisms in the vein of “special path.” Influential conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation point to immigration amnesty in 1986 as proof that offering legal status doesn’t fix the problem, and gives the term its pejorative nature.
Border security is even more problematic, but for opposite reasons. Congress has not deadlocked often on the issue of authorizing increased funding to secure the border. The rate of spending on the Border Patrol increased fourfold in the 1990s and tripled in the decade that ended in 2010. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, by the 2012 fiscal year the U.S. spent more on immigration enforcement ($17.9 billion) than all other criminal law enforcement agencies combined ($14.4 billion), including the F.B.I. and D.E.A. The staggering numbers didn’t prevent Senate Republican Bob Corker from calling for an additional $30 billion for a “border surge” last summer, apparently inverting the logic used to justify its namesake. Usually, a sudden strategic surge is justified by an eminent, rising threat.
Yet according to a report from the Pew Research Center, the peak in the estimated number of undocumented migrants in the U.S. occurred in 2007, and the number has been below that mark ever since (though it may be trending upward again). The number of undocumented migrants from Mexico fell sharply during that period to approximately 6.05 million in 2012, a decrease of almost a million from the 2007 figure. Certainly some of this decline is due to the unprecedented level of deportations under the presidency of Barack Obama: almost two million have been expelled during that time period. The exponential expansion of border security expenditures in the wake of September 11, 2001 has created what the Economist deemed “an odd jump of logic,” whereby “a mass murder committed by mostly Saudi terrorists resulted in an almost limitless amount of money being made available for the deportation of Mexican house-painters.”
It would be tempting to conclude that the dramatic rise in spending on immigration enforcement and the historically high levels of deportations have combined to turn the tide against illegal immigration. However, spending and enforcement have increased without respite since the 1980s. More importantly, something else significant occurred in 2007 that gives context to the immigration statistics. It’s the year the U.S. economy tanked. Mexico also felt the pains of what became a global economic contagion, yet it’s economy recovered faster in precisely the time period of the Pew study. Also worth noting is the fact that Mexican foreign direct investment in the U.S. in 2011 was $13.8 billion, a 22.2 percent increase from the previous year. U.S. foreign direct investment to Mexico, while significantly larger in absolute terms, only increased 8.4 percent in that interval. These numbers would seem to turn the logic of NAFTA, and its unfettering of investment growth from the U.S. towards Mexico, on its head.
NAFTA was of course a trade union; it did not unite the three countries politically, as the European Union did most of Europe. Not that the E.U. has avoided immigration issues entirely. The Swiss vote to deny free movement to Croatian citizens was a blow to E.U. common standards and brought scrutiny upon the historically neutral country. Though Switzerland is not part of the union, its close ties would be examined nonetheless, according to E.U. ministers. The Swiss position is anathema precisely because it failed to look at the issue of the costs of immigration from a European perspective. Net migration movements ultimately stabilize as economic opportunities become more uniform, so goes the logic. It’s a regional, intertwined viewpoint that the U.S. might be wise to import.
What makes the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border complex—and intrinsically multinational—is a mixture of geography and economics. NAFTA united the two countries, along with Canada, in a common trade agreement— it was the first such deal the U.S. signed with a developing economy—but when China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001, U.S. investment and imports pivoted to the East. Mexican trade with the U.S. surged in the period prior to 2001, but the rate of increase has dropped dramatically since, and negative effects—including the uprooting of two million farmers due to the mechanization of agricultural practices—have fed the surge in illegal immigration to the U.S. Thus the “world’s richest nation” shares roughly 2000 miles of border with a country that estimates almost half of its citizens live in poverty. The relative inequality of economic opportunity becomes the driving force behind all forms of migration between the two nations: it is the degree of the gap that incentivizes migration .
It is therefore surprising that the osmotic potential of economic inequity isn’t increasing illegal immigration from Mexico exponentially; the fact that it has leveled off seems confounding. The recession certainly highlights the fact that relative economic position has levers on both sides of the border, though it’s unlikely any U.S. politician will claim credit for decreasing net immigration by slowing U.S. economic growth.
Yet there is another element of the geographic dimension: Mexico serves as a conduit for Latin American migration as a whole. Recent figures on arrest rates at the border saw a 55 percent increase in Central American immigrants, including El Salvador and Guatemala, where the combination of drug-related violence and limited opportunities act as driving forces for emigration North. That the U.S. has played more than just a superficial role in the destabilization of the region has meant that the blowback from U.S. actions in Central America is coming home to roost .
Immigration to the United States, while harrowing for the migrant, can actually significantly benefit the country of origin. In Mexico, remittances consistently represent one of the top three contributing factors to GDP. In fact, they significantly outpace foreign direct investment in 26 of 32 Mexican states. But they are even more significant for Central American countries. In El Salvador, the combination of the degradation of economic opportunity by elite land owners and the state as a result of prolonged civil war has fueled emigration, which boosts remittances, in turn often deposited in national banks owned by the same interests. The irony is that remittances then form the collateral used to obtain international loans that enrich precisely the elites that drive the emigration in the first place.
Illegal immigration cannot be solved with American-side policies that focus solely on bigger fences, more spending, and giving undocumented immigrants such a hard time that they choose to “self-deport,” as Mitt Romney famously said. Simply put, the most prosperous nation on Earth is going to have a difficult time convincing would be immigrants that its worse to be here than in El Salvador. It’s estimated that the task of securing the border is already 84 percent effective, leaving the strategy at a point of diminishing returns.
Acting as if the border can be closed also ignores the cross-border trade developed by NAFTA, symbiotic cultural and economic relationships in border towns like San Diego and El Paso, and the exchange of goods and money—including remittances—that flow porously across the international boundary every year. In fact, the U.S. should prioritize the development of an investment fund that focuses on narrowing the gap between the economies of the hemisphere as a better solution, especially for illegal immigration . That U.S. senators can contemplate a $30 billion border surge—or over eight times what El Salvador received in remittances in 2012—when investments in economic opportunities abroad would deliver the better incentives more efficiently, speaks to the narrowness of the American political perspective. There is no question that U.S. funds already flow south; there are sound policies that could ensure it helped address our immigration issues here as well providing economic opportunities abroad. We’re way past the time for one side of the fence solutions.
Photo by Wayne Huang
 Fernandez-Kelly, Patricia and Douglas S. Massey. “Borders for Whom? The Role of NAFTA in Mexico U.S. Migration.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610 (2007): 98-118. Web. JSTOR. 18 Feb 2014.