The current view of Mexico in the United States is confusing. The executive branch of the government tends to see Mexico as a business partner, whereas members of the legislative branch tend to consider Mexico as an unredeemable source of calamities for the United States. On Aug. 10, Gov. Pete Wilson sent a message to President Clinton that portrayed Mexico and Mexicans as enemies of Californians, whereas a few years earlier, when he was a U.S. senator, the same Mr. Wilson actively promoted a greater inflow of migrant workers as a solution to agricultural problems in his state.
A study of this century's economic crises in the United States shows that these contradictions are not new. The United States has gone from welcoming Mexican workers in periods of economic expansion to expelling them furiously in periods of economic recession.
Now, on the eve of a new century, we've got to have a steadier, more balanced relationship.
In spite of all the bustle about the North American Free Trade Agreement in the United States, the fact remains that economic integration between the two countries is irreversible. I know the United States well enough to predict that two weeks after NAFTA is passed by Congress, all the xenophobic rhetoric against Mexico will vanish in a burst of economic joint ventures.
The most sensitive issue in our bilateral relations, in the long term, is not trade but the question of cross-border migration. We haven't even agreed on a common definition for this phenomenon. In Mexico, "migrant workers" are viewed positively, as people who go to the United States to earn something as legitimate as the profits made by Americans who hire them. In the United States, they are called "illegal aliens," and there is a negative view about them. Generally, they are seen as criminals whose main purpose in going to the United States is to milk public-welfare programs.
The truth of the matter is that neither Americans nor Mexicans possess the knowledge to scientifically ascertain the costs and benefits of undocumented migration for either country. To do so requires knowing how many undocumented migrants from Mexico are in the United States at a given point in time. At present, any claim of knowing what their impact is on the U.S. economy comes from indirect sources, none of which can be scientifically validated.
In this terrain, the old statement, "Poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far from God," no longer holds true. There is nothing more alien to the contemporary view of the world in Mexico than resignation to the forces of fate. To the asymmetry of power between the United States and Mexico, we Mexicans respond with Benito Juarez's wisdom of relying on the principles of law, rather than opting for forceful confrontation with a more powerful country. If a basic precept of law is the search for what is rational, our endeavor is to demystify the phenomenon of undocumented migration through scientific research.
At El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, we have developed a new sampling technique in social sciences, based on what biology statisticians have used for decades to measure "mobile populations." Inspired by the way biologists have approached the counting of migrant birds or blood cells, we have developed a sampling technique to scientifically approach the counting of human beings in their international migrations.
Based on the test results of this sampling technique, we won a research contract indirectly funded by the the World Bank. After the first six months of this one-year project, we have obtained some preliminary results. They confirm the findings of another ongoing project, which consists of monitoring undocumented migration flows in five Mexican border cities for the last six years. Together, these indicate a significant decline in undocumented migration from Mexico to the United States during the first six months of 1993, compared with the figures for the previous six-month period.
It is too early to tell if this decline is a reaction to recessionary labor conditions in the United States, and, therefore, a temporary matter, or a response to more structural conditions interacting on both sides of the border, such as the shrinking returns for migrants because of increasing costs of migration.
What is certain is that undocumented migration from Mexico is a bilaterally shaped phenomenon which can only be rationally approached through joint action of two countries. The next bilateral, or even trilateral, challenge after NAFTA should be an accord on labor migration. A sort of NALTA. A necessary prerequisite would be to settle on common definitions for the same phenomenon, and then to establish a common measurement of the costs and benefits for the two countries. Only then could we negotiate our respective interests. Finally, we would set reciprocal responsibilities between the two countries for the common goal of eliminating undocumented migration.
This is an endeavor no less complex than NAFTA. It might sound unrealistic in the light of today's anti-Mexican rhetoric. However, we will have to face such a challenge someday, if for no other reason than the fact that the only thing that our countries will never be able to change is geography.