Obama Can’t Escape Immigration at North American Summit

Written by on February 19, 2014 in Border, Economics, President Obama with 1 Comment

USAMexCan 1One would be hard pressed to engage in a discussion about U.S.-Mexico relations and not have the topic of immigration raise its head in a matter of minutes. Immigration is a critically important aspect of the relationship between the two countries, intersecting virtually every topic imaginable, from agriculture to popular culture. So it is ironic that U.S. President Barack Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are slated to discuss economic and security concerns—not immigration—at the North American Summit, which began Wednesday in Toluca, Mexico. But given that immigration is central to the economies of both Mexico and the United States, and a key factor in the security of the border they share, it is a safe bet that immigration will come up on more than one occasion.

In advance of the summit, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs—together with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and three Mexican partners (CESOP, CIDE, and ITAM)—released the preliminary results of public opinion surveys conducted in Mexico and the United States. The surveys focused on U.S. and Mexican attitudes towards the economic and security topics that headline the summit. The results are enlightening for both the similarities and differences they reveal in U.S. and Mexican beliefs about these topics.

The surveys found that eight in 10 Mexicans and seven in 10 Americans view their respective countries as highly important to one another. Yet most Americans have an unfavorable view of Mexico, whereas most Mexicans have a favorable view of the United States. In another, more concrete contradiction, majorities in Mexico and the United States view their countries as economic partners working in the same direction in terms of trade and economic development. But only one in five Americans are aware that Mexico is one of the United States’ top five trading partners.

In other words, much of the U.S. public does not realize the full breadth and depth of the economic relationship between the United States and Mexico. U.S.-Mexico bilateral trade amounted to more than $500 billion in goods and services in 2011. As for the immigration connection, remittances sent back home to Mexico by Mexican workers abroad (98 percent of whom live in the United States) were valued at $22 billion in 2013. Moreover, Mexican immigrants accounted for one in 10 workers in service, construction, and production occupations in the United States as of 2012, according to U.S. Census data.

The importance of economics notwithstanding, the surveys also found that majorities of the Mexican public (51 percent) and U.S. public (72 percent) believe the U.S.-Mexico security relationship ought to take precedence over the economic relationship. In other words, border control, drug trafficking, and organized crime are seen as more pressing concerns than trade and energy policy. Mexicans are more likely than Americans to believe that Mexico and the United States are moving in the same direction when it comes to security issues.

Although the surveys do not mention immigration in the border security context, it is in fact crucial. For decades, the U.S. immigration system has attempted to impose limits on immigration from Mexico that have not matched the demands of the U.S. labor market or the desire of immigrants in the United States to reunite with family members left behind. However, the federal government has relied upon an immigration enforcement strategy that does not effectively prioritize the capture of individuals who represent a genuine threat to public safety or national security. Rather, by making it more and more difficult for unauthorized immigrants to cross the border, the U.S. strategy has driven migrants into the hands of people smugglers who are now on the payroll of violent drug cartels. It is these cartels that represent the greatest security threat; not the immigrants they smuggle. The United States could enhance border security by creating more flexible legal limits on immigration. This would lessen the demand for smugglers and focus enforcement resources on people who are actually a threat.

In sum, while the North American Summit may not explicitly tackle immigration, the fact is that immigration is inextricably linked to the bilateral economic relations and security concerns of the United States and Mexico. U.S. immigration policy can be used to maximize the economic potential of immigration and make the border more secure by providing sufficient legal channels for both employment-based and family-based immigration. Or it can continue to limp along in its current dysfunctional form; creating a highly exploitable supply of workers and inadvertently drumming up business for people smugglers in the process.

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