Workers Agreement YES, Immigration NO; Mexicans are Different

The largest obstacle to resolving what essentially is an economic issue is our obsession with assuming that every person who sets foot in the United States wants to be a permanent resident or citizen. We do this without understanding that the status of the great majority of the undocumented workers and their families –most having been obligated to make the perilous trip across the border by a blind and unyielding system- could have been prevented and resolved to the benefit of all many years ago.

We fail across the socio political spectrum to even consider that some people –particularly Mexicans- have no particular interests, nor share the incentives of other nationals to immigrate to the US.

Undocumented immigration has generated political arguments that range from accepting our need for an expanded workforce, to pretending to see a terrorist in every undocumented worker.

Those who have seized the moment as an opportunity to make their fame and fortune pretending that the Mexico-US border is the superhighway of terrorism gravely exacerbate this situation. While the latter is a largely contrived fantasy, there is need to have order on both sides of the border.

Honest workers who are responding to the call of opportunity in a market with expanding demand for a larger and efficient work force can do so in an orderly and legal way, complemented with adequate protections from predators and abuses. Moreover, a legal and orderly process for workers to be able to work and return home freely will largely solve the need for these workers to bring their families, as they will no longer have to face the prospect of not seeing them in years and endure the problems that beset broken families.

The immigration debate encompasses all undocumented immigrants, not just Hispanics as many believe, and while most undocumented immigrants come from Mexico, the debate misses the fact that most Mexicans are the people least interested in immigrating to the US. As such, the much touted “Path to Citizenship” embraced by the average member of congress, and loudly emphasized in recent editorials by the Washington Post and the New York Times is solely based on the simplistic and blind belief that the objective of the majority of Mexicans who cross the border is to immigrate, and live our version of the American dream.

The simple fact is that the majority of Mexicans who come to the US are looking for jobs and dollar income to send to their families in Mexico, as shown by the billions of dollars in remittances sent every year. Their long-term objective is to save enough to build a home and establish their own enterprises in Mexico. Immigrating and moving their families to the US are primarily a consequence of being on the run without a guarantee of stability, and the deep distress caused by the separation from family and birthplace, further compounded by the risk and cost of illegally crossing the border to keep jobs and family. Given the opportunity to work legally in the US and reside in Mexico, most Mexicans will not immigrate, and, therefore neither will their families. Today, those who feel compelled to stay in the US have no urge to assimilate into American society, but rather keep their customs and language – as they largely do consider their current situation “temporary”.

Being Mexican means having a profound bond to land, family and traditions. Mexicans have no desire to change, except when confronted with few options. Mexicans who leave their homes and families want to work and make sacrifices to get ahead, and these are the people who Mexico can least afford to lose. A guest worker program would not only ensure their return, but also provide a source of training for greater productivity and competitiveness. Roots, family values, national and regional ties and a common, rather than a distant border, make Mexican workers different from others making their way to the US. Given reasonable options, Mexican workers will not settle in the US. After realizing their economic goals, the great majority will return to their homes and families in Mexico.

The proposal to establish a Guest Worker Program with Mexico addresses the roots of an economic reality, a reality governed by the laws of supply and demand. Mexican workers are looking for economic opportunity in a market that has shown the capability to employ as many as can cross the border. And, there is little argument as to the contribution of the Mexican workers to our economy.

Public reaction to undocumented immigration is varied, but has a common negative factor: from the infamous proposition 187 in California, to the current legislative efforts in many states to impede the issuing of drivers licenses, the opening of bank accounts, to make it more difficult, even impossible, for undocumented immigrants to obtain basic social services such as medical care and education.

The driving force behind these initiatives is the alleged strain on limited and over-extended budgets, and the unfounded argument that the undocumented are stealing from the community. Facts prove that the undocumented workers are entitled to all of these services by virtue of their being part of the productive economy, not only contributing with their industriousness, but also by paying the direct and indirect taxes that support most community services such as schools and public health care systems.

Regrettably, members of Congress and other politicians are acting based on largely accepted generalities and ignorance. If policy makers focus on the facts, changing a long-held but erroneous perception and treatment of Mexican workers in the US will not be difficult. Almost since the time Mexico and the US became independent, we have shared labor in many forms, mostly informal until the early part of the Twentieth Century when certain political events began to take action against Mexican workers along the Border States.

This was followed by the almost forgotten guest worker, or Bracero Accords between Mexico and the US (1942-1965), which allowed for the recruitment and hiring of Mexicans for agricultural work in the US. These accords worked well for the mutual benefit of the US and Mexico until they were unilaterally terminated by the US in 1965.

What was legal and regulated became undocumented, unregulated, and has unnecessarily created a problem where there is opportunity for both nations. A positive action, albeit small, was the establishment, in 1986, of the H2A and H2B visa programs that provide for the hiring of Mexican agricultural workers for the tobacco industry and fishing processors in numbers that were considered adequate then. Meanwhile, the US market has continued to create jobs in all sectors of the economy, demanding larger numbers of Mexican workers who continue to fill them, illegally, since the number of temporary work visas has remained frozen without a mechanism for adjustments to meet growing demands.

By expanding the current H2B program (it is capped at 66,000 visas annually) to correspond with reality, the US government has the means to provide solutions today. At the same time, while the H2A temporary agricultural visas has no cap, the perceived need to cross the border illegally and find agricultural work through “contacts” is pervasive to the extent that vast numbers of those employed in this field do so illegally when this is not necessary.

Save for a new effort by the government of the State of Nuevo Leon, in Monterrey, there is no national effort to inform those interested in agricultural work that they can cross legally, without undue risk and without having to pay. To this end, the Mexican government can depart from its traditional passive attitude and take an active role in not only informing its citizens interested in working in the US of their legal options for work, but to also set up programs that will provide for requisite documentation, background checks and all other requirements of the US, as well as coordination with employers and assure the fairness of the contracts.

The US and Mexico can ill afford to continue ignoring the realities of Mexicans working in the US. The enormous cost of immigration enforcement and human rights abuses, as well as social services, education and all other “rights” afforded to persons within US borders, would be reduced in quantum proportions by a legal, regulated, guest worker program. Furthermore, a legitimate, regulated, taxed “Mexico commuting” work force will contribute to the well being of both nations. There is much to be gained and little to be lost by accepting the profound difference between Mexicans and others who cross the US borders – “Mexicans seek economic opportunity, but not a place to settle!”

In spite of the proximity of the US and Mexico our understanding of each other leaves much to be desired. Many Americans cannot believe that there are some people not interested in living permanently in the US. But plenty of sane Mexicans have no such interest, unless they feel trapped in the US by our immigration system. Too many of our politicians and other government officials seem blind to this reality.

However, when we allow ourselves the option to ask this question, we will be on the fast track to resolving several problems of our times, to wit: illegal crossings, documented workers and labor contracts, 14-15 million undocumented Mexicans living in some form of legal twilight zone, support US business ability to operate, North American competitiveness, shore up Mexico, fix our borders – eliminate the flow of people, and concentrate on attacking the traffic of drugs and money laundering. Which, paradoxically, is a problem fueled by our demand for drugs and our largely ineffective actions to reduce and eliminate their use.

The practical solution requires a clear understanding of the Mexican workers motives and needs, Mexico and the US need to take immediate action to provide a process that promotes and facilitates the registration of all Mexicans that have interest in working in the US with the issuance of documents that meet the current US security and accountability requirements.

The US needs to work with Mexico in establishing a process that facilitates hiring and contracting between employers and workers. In dealing with the millions of Mexicans that are living and working in the US who lack proper documentation for work and some form of residency, temporary or permanent, it is necessary that both governments work together to establish a mechanism that promotes options that are practical. With the establishment of a Worker Agreement, the agreement must include those who are already working here and provide for options for regularization of their status. The first option should be the ability to apply for a work permit that allows them to continue their activities and provides for the legal travel to and from their homes in Mexico.

The rules of regularization should consider the payment of fees or fines that are in an adequate form compensatory for their undocumented status. Along with regularization, both governments should offer incentives for those who have their families here to relocate back to Mexico. Then, and only then, as a second step once the regularization process is complete should the “Path to Citizenship” be an option. For many, after so many years of living in the US and having formed a life they should then have the same opportunity to apply for residence and meet the requirements that any new immigration reform may establish; however the Path to Citizenship must be voluntary and not the only option, at least not for Mexicans for whom in their vast majority this is not their interest or objective.

A guest worker program between Mexico and the US will not only solve the largest problem that congress is facing, allowing for a true immigration reform that is focused only on those individuals who do need or want to be residents and citizens. A workers agreement further shores up American businesses, in many cases ensuring the labor needed to stay in business and not move to China, as well as provides for a circular worker migration that shores up Mexico’s need to enhance their work force and mutually shore up the much needed North American Competitiveness as the next step in evolving NAFTA into a production and trading block that is truly competitive with the European and Asian markets.

With respect to the NAFTA accord, in the definitions of Chapter 16 “Temporary Entry to Business Persons”, states: temporary entry means entry into the territory of a Party by a businessperson of another Party without the intent to establish permanent residence. Workers are an essential part of any business; as such the applicability of this provision can be expanded as means to providing a rapid option for structuring a comprehensive workers agreement.

The solutions do not only involve the immediate actions by the Mexican and US governments. The private sector, who is the largest beneficiary of this highly productive labor pool, needs to also become an active participant in promoting a well organized Guest or Temporary Worker program. This will result in stable work force, avoiding the continuance of raids of work sites by immigration authorities, who in the process of upholding the law are endangering the viability of many US based industries and businesses.

*A previous version of this article was published in the News Bulletin of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, September 1995 under the title “Migration Yes, Immigration No. Mexicans are different”.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login