Control Immigration Now : U.S. Can’t Forever Be Mexico’s Domestic Safety Valve

<i> Doris M. Meissner is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. </i>

Backers of immigration reform are struggling for time in the waning congressional session to debate legislation already passed four times since 1982.

The now-familiar formula of employer sanctions, legalization and agricultural worker provisions has given the issue the character of a domestic policy debate. The foreign-policy arguments for reform have been heard less frequently, yet they present the most compelling rationale for passage now.

Many countries encourage emigration as a matter of policy. The push-outs engineered by Vietnam during the late 1970s and Cuba in 1980 were dramatic examples. Less flagrant but equally troublesome are the policies of countries like Haiti, Mexico and El Salvador, which depend on emigration to ameliorate the shortcomings of their economies and politics and stave off discontent and painful reform. By holding it illegal for persons to be in the United States without authorization while allowing those who employ them to do so with impunity, the United States supports and sustains such passive emigration policies and is a partner in diverting attention from solutions.


The case of Mexico is the most telling. The meeting of President Miguel de la Madrid and President Reagan in August was intended to put a positive face on a frequently turbulent relationship. Migration, being among the contentious issues, had low priority. Its sole mention came in answer to a reporter’s question, when De la Madrid called for greater protection for the rights of migrant workers and cautioned the United States to “avoid taking unilateral decisions on problems of common interest that consequently affect both sides of the border.”

Although warning against “unilateral” approaches--Mexico’s byword for employer sanctions--its government declines to discuss bilateral approaches, supposedly to avoid impinging on U.S. sovereignty. Spanning at least a decade, a succession of migration consultative mechanisms, technical information exchange groups and joint committees has failed to produce cracks in that armor.

Mexico’s Realpolitik is to perpetuate the status quo. The migration safety valve compensates for widespread underemployment more fully and efficiently than any other system within reach. So long as the United States fails to enact legislation that sets up a new equation, Mexico feels no need to confront the issue in the context of bilateral negotiations or actions.

But the status quo is no longer palatable for Americans who accept the claim that we have “lost control of our borders.” This year’s net 15% to 20% leap in border arrests, combined with the information that Mexico’s population has doubled from 35 million to 70 million in one generation and will redouble in the next, has left its political imprint. Polls consistently show widespread support for increased immigration control and employer sanctions. The legislation before Congress represents a measured response to the public’s fear of a “silent invasion” and its demand to “do something.”

Implementation of employer sanctions, the centerpiece, would be phased, allowing time for the economic adjustments that will be necessary in both the United States and Mexico. Illegal immigration would still occur, but the scale and rate of increase would gradually diminish to more manageable levels. Thus, the actual economic change would be gradual and incremental.

Where change would be dramatic is in the political and psychological dimensions of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. Americans would be reassured that reasonable steps had been taken to re-secure our border. Mexico would be on notice that the policy of biding time would no longer serve its interests, because decreases in the flow north, albeit gradual, would set in. The need for serious bilateral steps going to the underlying issues of jobs and growth would have been established.

Failure once again to institute reasonable immigration controls will surely spawn increasingly militaristic responses and polarization. The current hysteria over drug use in the United States is instructive. Like immigration, drug-law enforcement has traditionally been a civilian task. However, drug trafficking is now categorized as a national security threat both by presidential directive and congressional action, opening the way for deployment of military and intelligence resources on our southern border.

Because large, unauthorized flows of people across borders are inherently destabilizing, illegal immigration can also be perceived as a national security issue. Should the definitions and approaches being proposed to counter the drug threat be directed to the perceived immigration threat, the consequences for U.S.-Mexican relations would be ominous indeed.

A politics of partnership and shared destiny must prevail over one of fear and antagonism if both nations are to undertake the economic adjustments and political accommodations required to surmount the dictates of geography. Enacting reasonable immigration controls now will avert the inevitability of repressive measures and will preserve the possibilities for political rationality in the United States’ relationship with Mexico and with the developing world at large.