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Immigration: trials and tribulations

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Main image: from a photo-essay by David Bacon.

A report published by the Pew Research Center has documented the changing face of immigration into the United States over a one hundred year period (1910-2010). The report, written by Jens Manuel Krogstad and Michael Keegan, shows that Mexico is the leading country of birth for immigrants, documented and undocumented, in 33 of America’s 50 states.

Demographers and commentators have for a long recognised that the US, or at least parts of it, are becoming ‘Latinized’. Since the Immigration and Nationality Act (aka the Hart-Celler Act) was passed in 1965, Latin America has become the main source of immigrants to the US. About 50 percent of all immigrants who reached the US in that 49 year period have come from the countries of Latin America.

Of that number, the vast majority have traditionally come from Mexico. The country is, according to the Pew Center report, ‘the source of the largest wave of immigration in history’.

Whilst California and Texas are the most ‘Mexicanized’, with half of all Mexican immigrants living in those two states, the Pew Center report indicates that Mexican immigrants have spread to ‘non-traditional’ states such as Georgia and North Carolina in the South and Nebraska and Ohio in the Midwest.

During the recession since 2007 immigration from Mexico and Central America to the US slowed dramatically. According to a 2012 Pew Hispanic Center report, ‘the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed’.

However, while an Al-Jazeera America report published in September 2013 noted that ‘illegal immigration appears to be on the rise again’, this increase is being driven by migrants from Central America rather than Mexico. Increases in drug-related violence together with poor rule of law are among the major factors pushing migrants from countries such as Honduras and Guatemala to the US, according to the report.

Migration from Mexico to the US is still clearly a massive issue on both sides of the border. Debates rage around border security, the status of undocumented and unauthorised migrants as well as the dangers of the journey through Mexico.

Fear and Misery on the Border

Migrants on a train, headed for the border. Photo: Irieio MujicaAs human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have documented, the journey to the US is fraught with danger. A report in The Guardian newspaper described the migrant trails through Mexico as ‘one of the most perilous migration routes in the world’.

Migrants passing through Mexico — many of whom are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — suffer a range of abuses at the hands of the police as well as the cartels. They face the threat of kidnapping, with reports suggesting that the cartels extort money from relatives living in the US. A 2011 National Human Rights Commission report documented the abduction by the cartels of approximately 11,000 migrants in a six month period during 2010. As well as extortion, the cartels also often force migrants to act as mules carrying drugs across the border into America.

Women face the added threat of rape and sexual assault. The Los Angeles Times has suggested that ‘as many 6 in 10 women and girls are sexually assaulted on the journey’. Reports suggest that migrant women often expect to be raped en route and take precautionary contraceptive injections before setting out.

The San Fernando Tamaulipas massacre. Photo: Frontera Norte-SurOne of the most notorious episodes in Mexico’s recent migration history was the Tamaulipas massacre when 72 undocumented migrants were murdered by Los Zetas cartel in the village of La Huizachel. The massacre only came to light because one of the migrants captured by the cartel escaped, despite being shot, and was able to reach a military checkpoint. Mexican soldiers subsequently found the bodies of those massacred, hidden on a ranch. Investigators believe that the migrants were executed because they refused to work for the cartel and were unable to pay a ransom.

The Mexican government has been accused of failing to provide adequate protection for migrants transiting its terrritory. The Los Angeles Times report noted that many of the crimes committed against migrants in transit are not reported ‘because Mexican police and other authorities are participating in them’. While the Mexican government has instituted legislative reforms supposed to strengthen the rights of migrants, Amnesty International is concerned that these are not being implemented effectively.

In February this year, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty delivered a letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto which called on him to make a public statement affirming his government’s commitment to human rights, ensure that cases in which migrants have disappeared are properly investigated and those who committed crimes are pursued, take action to ensure the safety of journalists and human rights activists, and ensure that the human rights of irregular migrants are properly respected and preserved.

US immigration policy

Immigration is one of the thorniest issues in American politics. On a recent trip to Mexico, Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed President Barack Obama’s commitment to reforming American immigration policy arguing that this was a necessity and in the interests of Mexico as well as the United States.

Obama’s reforms include an attempt to address the status of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants who have made their home in the United States. Specifically, the President’s plans include a ‘roadmap’ or a path towards citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Obama’s priority according to a white house official is to ‘enact a permanent solution for people currently living in the shadows’.

It is this roadmap to citizenship that has proven so contentious for many Republicans in the House of Representatives, who tend to equate the idea of a path towards citizenship with an amnesty.

The bill appears to have reached something of an impasse in the House. Reports suggest that President Obama wants to give the GOP the opportunity to pass the legislation. However, House Speaker Paul Boehner has made it clear that he is only willing to adopt a piecemeal approach to the legislation rather than adopt it wholesale.

The irony of this is that such politicking may in the future come to look very short sighted.

In her book Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States and the Road Ahead, Shannon O’Neil postulates that demographic trends mean that US may one day need to actively attract Mexican workers to move to the United States. The US faces a labour shortage in the coming years as the baby-boom generation born between 1946 and 1964 reaches retirement age.

Whether Mexico would be able to fill the resulting void in the labour market remains to be seen. With the Mexican economy growing, and Mexico anointed as one of the MINT economies, migration to the US might not seem quite as appealing as it has to past generations.