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An old tale cautions that one should be careful of what one wishes for, because it may come true. In the case of Mexican migration to the U.S., Mexico has been extraordinarily emphatic in the urgency to legalize the population of Mexican origin who live and work in that nation. It is a complex theme, one in which factors of the economic reality are interlaced with those of justice, legality, and sovereignty. The risk is that legalization eventually is much less benign for the Mexican polity than anticipated.
Migration of Mexicans to the U.S. entertains myriad arêtes, but is not a novel theme. From the mid-XIX century with the construction of the railway system, employment opportunities for migrants began to be created in the U.S. Much has changed since then, but some things continue to be the same, and it is worth our while to analyze these.
•    The first that is evident, but often ignored, above all on the U.S. side, is that a near perfect labor market exists in the region: there is a demand for work there, and there are people available for employment here. An enormous proportion of these people emigrate because they already have the contacts for the work in which they will engage, which illustrates the efficiency of this market. Much more suggestively, the unemployment rate among illegal or undocumented aliens is much lower than that of the U.S. population, demonstrating that Mexican migrants do not go to see whether they can find work, but rather, they make the decision to go North based on a reasonable expectation that they will indeed have a job. Migratory flows crest and ebb according to job demand.
•    No less importantly, but something that is devaluated and assigned little relevance in Mexico, is the fact of the legal foundering that migration implies: illegal entry into the US is not a right.  All migrants who cross the border through a site other than a legal U.S. Border port-of-entry immigration inspection station at which there is a U.S. government migration officer know that what they are doing something illegal. This is irrevocable – there’s no way around it. The problem is that the concept of the law and legality is very distinct between the two nations. In the U.S., the law is the cornerstone of interaction and social coexistence, while in Mexico, it is solely one of many factors that characterize the social and political fabric. For the Mexican, the law is more of a desire than a norm with which one is obliged to comply. Here, as Octavio Paz noted many times, two worlds whose roots and perceptions are radically opposed come head to head.
•    Independently of their legal situation, communities of migrants who establish themselves in the U.S. put down roots, and, with the births of their sons and daughters, create legal realities, morasses complicate any given situation and that frequently produce terrible dramas. On occasion, as when a dragnet is conducted that leads to the deportation of some individuals, the children remain in a limbo that is not only painful, but extraordinarily difficult to resolve.
•    In times past, the typical migrant came from an impoverished locality, was often undernourished, and, years later, inherited U.S. diseases such as diabetes and those related with obesity. Today the situation has changed: many migrants are carriers of diseases like these, but they encounter immense difficulties because U.S. health services treat these populations only in cases of emergency.
•    In political terms, the Mexican Government ignored the matter for decades because, although in practice it understood the issue as an employment policy, it was chary to assume the political costs that this reality entailed vis-à-vis the bilateral relationship. Arguing that Mexicans have the Constitutional right to enter and leave the country freely, Mexican politicians sought to benefit from the employment and remittances with no output cost. With NAFTA, the fact of migration was recognized, but it was assumed that the growth of the Mexican economy would resolve the issue. Today, with the burgeoning Mexican population in the U.S., no Mexican politician can take the liberty of ignoring the theme. The problem is that the political establishment continues to pretend that this is a U.S. issue, and that Mexico is solely an innocent actor in the process.
•    It is not by chance that a huge migratory bubble has appeared over the past 20 years: it all began with the demographic growth policy promoted by the government of Echeverría (1970-1976), the very policy that ended up producing ca. 20 million more Mexicans than would have existed had the historical trend been maintained. This number is nearly equal to that of the Mexican population that has migrated.
•    The U.S. political reality has changed: diverse circumstances, ranging from recession to the drop in family income levels and growing internal political conflict, have caused the levels of tolerance toward illegality to plummet drastically. More than one half of Americans support the type of legislation recently approved by the state of Arizona. At the same time, 60% want to resolve the legal situation of those who are already there. Very few ask what would happen were there no offer of gardeners or maids for their homes. But the political fact that no one can ignore is that the level of tolerance has dropped.
•    Years ago, migrants crossed the border ushered by coyotes who, in some sense, were themselves “entrepreneurs”. Currently, this role has been assumed by criminal organizations, whose members enjoin arms, people, and drugs. None of this aids in the perceptions forged among Americans on the topic.
Potential legalization of many of the Mexicans who now reside without papers in the U.S. would transform their lives and would open up to them an extraordinary horizon of development. Any effort by the Mexican government is valid if only for this. However, the implications must be understood.
The cost of this legalization would be two-fold: on the one hand, it is unthinkable that something could be approved in the U.S. Congress without a bilateral agreement that commits the Mexican Government to regulate migratory flows and to oblige Mexicans to effect border crossings at checkpoints established for this purpose. With this, migration would cease being a real option except for a handful of persons, all with visas.
On the other hand, the consequence of the latter is that the Mexican Government would find itself faced with the inexorable necessity of reforming our economy in order to accelerate economic growth and create jobs, i.e., what it has eschewed for decades. Now, it is certain that in the absence of the escape valve, the pressure would be for real.
The demand that the U.S. resolve the migratory theme is commendable, but the implication of this would be obliging our political establishment to plunge into the themes lurking in the background and to affect interests of all types. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).