As Mexican president Vicente Fox begins his historic administration, the most difficult and abrasive issue that both he and the United States must confront is the continuing flow of immigration from Mexico. As Presidents Fox’s August 2000 visit to the United States made clear, no other issue poses a greater obstacle to improved relations between the two nations.
The issue is particularly difficult to address because of one rarely questioned assumption held by the vast majority of US voters and policymakers–that the United States itself played no part in creating the conditions that have led to the large flow of Mexican workers across our borders and therefore bears no real responsibility to assist Mexico in seeking solutions. Many Americans, in fact, visualize the flow of migrants to the United States as an entirely internal Mexican problem that has been irresponsibly dumped upon the United States without our participation or approval. As a result, most Americans do not believe that we have any obligation to work collaboratively with Mexico in seeking solutions.
Even if it were true that the United States had played no role in the creation of Mexican migration to the United States, this would not be a valid argument against working harmoniously with Mexico to seek solutions. But, more important, the inescapable reality is that, for the past twenty-five years the United States has had a profound and often decisive influence on social and economic policy in Mexico, so much so that, to a significant extent, the current level of immigration to the United States is the result of policies designed and promoted on this side–not the other side–of the Rio Grande.
Because these events have occurred over a long time, few Americans are able to visualize how this could be the case. But the full extent of the US role can be clearly seen by focusing on the experience of a typical young Mexican man in his mid-20s–an immigrant like so many we see every day mowing lawns or working on construction sites in cities across America.
When this young man was born in the late 1970s, Mexico was in the midst of a profound social and economic transformation. While US economists had routinely dismissed Mexico’s post-war economic system as a state-dominated, protectionist dinosaur that stifled Mexico’s development, in fact, the social and economic policies of governments in the 1950s and 1960s provided Mexico with a significant degree of social stability and above-average economic growth. Social legislation, first enacted in the 1930s, provided a significant measure of job and income security for millions of industrial and public sector workers while land reform measures dating from the same period allowed many young people during the 1950s and 1960s to find work and remain in rural areas. Foreign investment, while highly regulated and directed by the governing PRI, was, for the most part, productively invested in basic infrastructure projects such as the national road network and electric power grid.
As a result, although the US standard of living was vastly higher than Mexico’s during this period, illegal immigration was not as significant a problem. Even those at the bottom of the economic ladder in Mexico often had some formal or informal social safety net–the seemingly indigent street vendors and beggars who sat on the sidewalks near the tourist hotels, for example, were often members of cooperatives that protected their particular spot and thus insured them a minimum living. Such arrangements, while they fell far short of providing an escape from poverty, made life in Mexico still preferable to the unknown dangers of illegal immigration to the United States.