Just about everything that could be said and written about Proposition 187 was published or stated before the Nov. 8 election, with one possible exception: what the actual consequences of approval might be for the home countries of the soon-to-be disentitled migrants, the 15 or so nations of Latin America and the Caribbean that generate migratory flows representing, over time, more the 5% of their total population. Leading this category are Mexico, most of Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the Caribbean states. (Colombian and Caribbean emigrants are concentrated in the American East, but the ripples of Proposition 187 will be nationwide.) For all these countries, the change in immigration altitudes in the United States will have a crucial impact.
First, a shift in U.S. immigration policy may have a paradoxically beneficial impact on Latin American immigration policy. Already Mexican President-elect Ernesto Zedillo, in a quick swing through El Salvador and other Central American nations last week, was forced to acknowledge that Mexico's treatment of undocumented Salvadoran migrants is not much better, and often worse, than U.S. behavior toward Mexicans.
This problem is far more widespread than is suspected, and extends beyond the case of Central and South Americans passing through Mexico on their way north. Bolivians and Paraguayans in Chile, Argentina and southern Brazil, Colombians in Venezuela, Peruvians just about everywhere--all suffer many of the same manifestations of extortion, discrimination and human-rights abuses that Mexicans are subjected to in the United States. In the coming confrontation on the fallout from Proposition 187 and in subsequent negotiations on migratory matters, Latin American self-righteousness will appear particularly unseemly in the light of wanton abuses by immigration authorities south of the Rio Grande.
Secondly and more important, most Latin American governments, and above all Mexico, will now have to retreat from what had been a notably successful posture on emigration issues for nearly half a century: looking the other way. For Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba (in its own way), Ecuador and Peru, emigration has not only not been a problem; it has functioned largely as a partial solution to many of these nations' domestic dilemmas. True, the unemployment safety-valve theory is not totally accurate; most emigrants have jobs and leave to seek better-paying ones. And there is a high cost involved for a society that sees its most dynamic and adventurous souls depart for another land. But by and large, the advantages of large-scale outflows, legal or not, far outweighed the drawbacks, which were, for the governments in question, minor indeed: the indignity of abuses committed against Latin American nationals by U.S. authorities, employers or rival minorities, and the political fallout from confronting or caving in to Washington on these issues.
The new attitude in the United States is adamantly for change in immigration policies, ranging from the Draconian remedies of Proposition 187 to the less emotional recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. These, along with the Border Patrol's stepped-up policing across from Tijuana and its blockade in El Paso, all indicate that Latin American governments will no longer have the luxury of looking away. The plight of "undocumented" Mexicans and other nationals in the United States--their actual or perceived disentitlement to constitutional protection or even civil decency--will be seen in the home countries as outright abuse, forcing governments to "do something." Even so, migration will continue; more rigorous enforcement of U.S. laws and borders will make crossing more difficult and expensive but not impossible.
Herein lies the third consequence of Proposition 187. It will in all likelihood put migratory matters where they have never really been in hemispheric relations: on the negotiating table.
The Central American presidents who met with Zedillo have already taken a first step with their Mexican counterpart by deciding to include the migration issue on the agenda of the Western Hemisphere summit in Miami next month. Many business and political leaders in Mexico are now espousing the stance that very few (including this writer) staked out during the NAFTA debate: that Mexico should have pressed for a chapter on immigration, even if that meant complicating the treaty's ratification.
But negotiations on migratory problems between generating and receiving countries are a complicated process. They generally end in a basic trade-off, as happened most recently between Washington and Havana: expanded legalization of out-migration in exchange for sharing the responsibility of regulating it. This does not necessarily mean that Mexico should patrol its own borders, as Fidel Castro basically agreed to do with the beaches of Cojimar. Nor does it imply that the United States, after a decent interval, would begin, for example, to accept far more legal immigrants from El Salvador than it publicly acknowledges, as it had done with the Cubans in Guantanamo.
But it does signify that the governments of Latin America must soon face a cruel conundrum. They will have to negotiate the numbers of their countrymen who wish to leave, by inference leaving the others to a cruel limbo. And in order to reach agreements with the United States on these flows and their legality, they will be obliged to become involved in regulating them, by volume, destination, season and profession or type of skill. None of this will be easy or pleasant--or palatable to large segments of Latin American public opinion. But if California's record of anticipating swings in U.S. public attitudes is any indication, it will be probably be unavoidable: The sentiment behind Proposition 187 seems to be here to stay, even if its details and mechanics are not.