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Straight Talk on Immigration

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: March 15, 2007

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On September 5, 2001, President Bush said Mexico was the United States’ most important foreign policy priority, “because Mexico is our neighbor, and neighbors must work together.” After six years in which U.S.-Mexico relations have taken a backseat to Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush appears ready to revive the relationship. During his two-day visit to Mexico, the culmination of a much-watched trip through Latin America in which he has faced anger and complaints over U.S. immigration policy, he said he hoped to complete immigration reform by August. In a press conference shortly before Bush’s visit, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said he sought a relationship of “mutual respect” with Washington and not one of “subordination” (El Universal). This tone carried over into the first day of meetings between the two presidents, during which Calderon expressed deep concern over Congress' ability to pass immigration reform and Bush pledged to work hard (Dallas Morning News) to pass such legislation.

President Bush promised to deliver a guest worker program during former Mexican President Vicente Fox’s tenure, but instead signed the Secure Fence Act, authorizing the construction of a seven-hundred-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Calderon opposes the fence: In a January interview with Der Spiegel, he said, “It makes more sense to build a single kilometer of road in a poorly developed Mexican state than to build ten kilometers” of the proposed wall. He reiterated this statement in his meeting with Bush, warning that the only way to curb illegal migration was to improve Mexico's economy (Newsday). His statement was a marked break with his previous strategy of deemphasizing the issue (WashPost) in the U.S.-Mexico agenda.

Calderon's inability to place immigration on the back burner illustrates its centrality to the U.S.-Mexico relationship. A new report from the Center for American Progress argues that increasing counternarcotics cooperation or U.S. economic investment in Mexico will hinge on (PDF) making progress with immigration reform. But many point to Bush’s lame-duck status and dependence on Congress to enact policy changes as barriers to reform. As this Backgrounder outlines, there are widely divergent opinions in Congress on how to handle immigration reform, making progress unlikely before Bush leaves office.

The divide in Congress mirrors the larger American uneasiness over immigration. CFR Senior Fellow Julia Sweig suggests that improving U.S.-Latin America relations requires attention to domestic policy: “The real challenge is a domestic one, of making the case at home to engage with others and maintain our essential features and open society, where capital and people from elsewhere are continually regenerating who we are.” As much as President Bush might hope otherwise, “there is no quick fix for illegal migration,” explains a Council Special Report on Mexico. In the meantime, it suggests the United States help Mexico create some of the five hundred thousand new jobs needed to employ aspiring emigrants.

While immigration reform will likely color the discussions between the two leaders, there is potential for cooperation on security. Prior to their meetings, Bush expressed support for Calderon’s aggressive crackdown on drug-gang violence. In addition to sending federal troops to eight states, Calderon has announced an anti-crime strategy (Houston Chronicle) that entails merging Mexico’s four federal police forces, creating a national criminal database, and modifying the judicial process to make it fairer and more efficient. Both countries have a vested interest in cracking down on drug cartels: Over 90 percent of the cocaine coming from South America reaches the United States through Mexico, and Mexico saw a stunning increase in drug-related deaths in 2006. A series of bilateral border-area cooperation meetings currently address issues of migration and security, as outlined in this Congressional Research Service report (PDF). This Pacific Council on International Policy report (PDF) argues that U.S. ties with Mexico and other close Latin American neighbors will only intensfiy in the next twenty-five years, forcing leaders to take a more constructive approach to solving problems such as immigration.

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