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Mexico is Key to U.S. Immigration Woes


With a flood of Mexican migrants entering the United States, many of them illegally, Americans and Congressional lawmakers are asking why Mexico doesn't improve conditions for its people so they don't feel compelled to leave.

Every sundown, the open desert between Mexico and the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona becomes a northbound highway for illegal migrants. So do the hills to the east of San Diego, California and barren parts of Texas along the Rio Grande River. All along the more than 3,500 kilometer border, there are people pouring out of Mexico into the United States seeking better jobs and a new life. And nothing seems to be able to stop them.

Most estimates put the number of illegal migrants in the United States at more than ten million people, the majority coming from Mexico.

"Safety Valve"

Manuel Orozco, with a Washington-based research group called the Inter- American Dialogue, says that for decades Mexican migration has been a "safety valve," easing some of the pressure on the Mexican government to institute reforms as well as a way for people to escape substandard living conditions.

"The government cannot afford to take care of these people in terms of delivery of social and public goods. It is relieving the country of its inability to perform better economically, because the local economy cannot compete in the global economy, cannot generate enough wealth to keep people employed," says Orozco.

According to U.S. government figures, Mexico's population now stands at more than 107 million. Its gross domestic product is a little more than one trillion U.S. dollars, which amounts to about $10,000 per person. While Mexico's economy is considered strong compared to other Latin American countries, per-capita income is only a fourth of that of the United States. Forty percent of Mexico's population lives below the poverty line. So many Mexicans go to the United States to work and send money back home to their families.

John Wahala, a researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington says, "According to the Inter-Development Bank, remittances sent home by Mexican immigrants amounted to more than $20 billion in 2005. So this is a major source of revenue for the Mexican government."

Mexican Mercantilism

For years, some U.S. lawmakers have called on Mexico to improve its economy and business climate so more Mexicans can find opportunities at home instead of migrating northward. But historically, Mexico has had its commerce and industry concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy, powerful groups who have no interest in opening up to competitors.

Roberto Salinas Leon, Director of the Mexico Business Forum in Mexico City, says these controlling interests also strongly influence government policy. "The control that the business elite exerts today is part and parcel of a much broader historical tradition called 'mercantilism,' where basically you have deals made between the business elite and the political process in order to favor the business elite. The business sector uses the political process instead of the economic process to benefit," says Leon.

Roberto Salinas Leon says that because of mercantilism, those who dominate economic sectors such as cement, the media and telecommunications have been protected by government regulations that make it very difficult for others to compete. But, he says, the challenge of a global economy and internal pressures have combined to exert force for substantive change, though it is coming about very slowly.

While a number of U.S. politicians have clamored for Mexico to improve its economic conditions and control migration, politicians in Mexico have hurled their own rhetoric at Washington. George Grayson is a Latin America specialist at the College of William and Mary in the U.S. state of Virginia. He says Mexico City argues that it is helping, not hurting, the United States.

"Mexican politicians have raised hell about the failure of the United States to legalize existing unlawful aliens. That is, the idea that they're doing us a favor by sending us people who will work for modest wages. And without such people, they argue, the U.S. economy would grind to a halt," says Grayson.

A number of Mexican lawmakers have come out in favor of the White House's proposed "guest worker" program and other measures that would make it easier for Mexicans to cross the border and work in the United States.

In recent years, the Mexican government has become even more involved in the U.S. political process. Manuel Orozco at the Inter-American Dialogue says Mexican President Vincente Fox has established an entity called the Institute for Mexicans Living Abroad.

"The government wants to establish a relationship with its diaspora, and in that relationship, leverage their political capital to lobby the U.S. government on policy issues dealing with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans," says Orozco.

The Mexican Viewpoint

Many analysts say the Mexican illegal migrant issue goes far beyond the political process on both sides of the border. The Center for Immigration Studies' John Wahala cites a survey done in Mexico, indicating that many there see northward migration as an entitlement.

"There is a Zogby Poll in 2003 that was taken. About 57 percent of Mexicans believe that they have the right to enter the U.S. without permission. And in that same poll, 58 percent said the southwestern states belong to Mexico," says Wahala.

What became the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico actually did belong to Mexico until the Mexican-American War nearly 160 years ago.

Because of this complex mix of political and cultural factors, and the structure of Mexico's economy, many analysts say that few solutions to the illegal migration of Mexicans will be found south of the U.S. border. They say the status quo provides Mexico with valuable remittances and less domestic pressure to institute political and economic reforms.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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