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U.S. National Immigration Reform Stalls but Changes Made at State, Local Level - 2003-06-10

Nineteen illegal immigrants – including a five-year old boy and his 31-year old father – were found dead on May 13. They suffocated to death in a sweltering tractor-trailer in Texas. The Washington Post newspaper reported that Jose Antonio Villasenor Leon paid between $1,500 and $2,000, or more than half a year’s wages, to a smuggler to get him and his son Marco across the desert border and into Texas. Once they were there, Jose Antonio phoned home to let his family know they had made it safely to the United States. The fateful truck ride was to be their last leg in the journey north toward a better life.

Like many Mexicans who make the dangerous trip north, Jose Antonio thought the United States would provide him and his son with a better life. He may have preferred to work in Mexico, where he had family and friends, but the lure of earning up to 12 times more in pay proved too great.

Although the tragedy in Texas made national and international headlines, it’s nothing new. In the past five years, more than 2,000 migrants have died along the U.S.-Mexican border from dehydration, exposure to the elements or drowning.

Gustavo Cano, a visiting scholar at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego, says Mexican immigrants are drawn to the United States by economic opportunity. These men, women and children risk their lives for a chance to work at a low-paying, labor-intensive job that many Americans are uninterested in doing. As such, they contribute to the American economy.

“For Mexican immigrants, when they arrive here, the wage differential for a job in the U.S. compared to that same job in Mexico is 12 to 1 or 10 to 1,” he says. “So that really covers any kind of opportunity cost for immigrants to leave their family and come to the U.S., even if they have to risk their own life through the desert in order to reach that level of income.”

Legal immigrants to the United States arrive in one of several ways. Many come on student or work visas, while others win legal status through a lottery system. But many on the southern side of the 3,000 kilometer U.S.-Mexican border prefer to take their chances and risk their lives by sneaking over the lightly guarded crossing.

Mexican President Vicente Fox says he is tired of seeing Mexicans die for their dreams of a better life. He has made improved U.S.-Mexican relations a cornerstone of his presidency, and at least initially the Bush Administration seemed willing to address the plight of the four to five million undocumented Mexican immigrants living and working in the United States.

But the September 11 terrorist attacks changed that. Suddenly, the issue of illegal immigration became entwined with national security and the Bush Administration had more pressing issues to deal with.

“For the moment the priority is national security. Mexicans understand that,” Professor Cano says. He thinks it has become very difficult to modify U.S. immigration law in the post-Nine-Eleven world.

“I understand that it’s very important for the U.S. to defend its borders, and I’m sure the Mexicans understand its fight against terror. However, we have here a huge number of people who got trapped in the middle – these four or five million Mexican immigrants working and living in the U.S.,” he says.

Now that more than 20 months have passed since the 9/11 attacks, President Fox has urged the Bush Administration to move forward on immigration reform. In an interview with The Washington Post, he says he understands the view that immigration can be a threat to national security. But he adds: “No terrorists have come from Mexico, and none has been a Mexican.”

John Wahala is a research associate at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, a group that seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted. He says some key members of the Bush Administration favor an amnesty, or legalization of their immigration status for undocumented Mexican workers already in the United States. But Mr. Wahala says an amnesty encourages others to break the law.

“What a law like that says is don’t play by the rules,” he says. “If you come illegally, if you are able to evade the border enforcement effort, then basically we’ve eviscerated our interior enforcement, and you can remain under the radar and live in this quasi-legal status. And if you stay long enough, then we’ll eventually legalize you. So it encourages illegal immigration.”

Several U.S. congressmen agree with Mr. Wahala’s assessment and are working against any type of blanket immunity.

But there is another way to get around the issue. The Mexican government is encouraging American state and local governments to take steps to improve the lives of the undocumented Mexicans working and living in their towns. One way is by promoting use of the Mexican consular identification card as a proof of identity and residence. Mr. Wahala disapproves.

“But what’s important to note about the card is that it is used almost exclusively by illegal immigrants,” he says, “because by their very nature legal immigrants are already documented and really have no use for the card. So in other words, what the Mexican government is trying to do is to circumvent Congress and circumvent U.S. law and try to get a quasi-amnesty deal done through grass roots efforts.”

The consular identification card is a form of identification, like a passport, that Mexico provides for its citizens. Recently, the Mexican government upgraded the quality of the card and introduced new features to make it more difficult to forge.

In the wake of 9/11, American police departments seem to like the card. Instead of having to devote a lot of resources to verifying Mexicans’ indentitites, they can rely on the card.

“We want people to cooperate with our police department,” says Doug Duncan, County Executive for Montgomery County in Maryland, which borders Washington. In late May, the county joined communities in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois and Texas in accepting the consular cards issued by Mexico as valid proof of identity and residence.

“During the sniper shootings last year, which were centered in Montgomery County,” he says, “there was an issue that some Latino immigrants might have seen something but were afraid to come forward because of documentation issues and other things. And we want to make sure that people can come and cooperate with our police and give us the information we need to make our community safer and I think having these cards is going to give them that extra level of confidence that they can do just that.”

There are more than 100,000 Latinos living in Montgomery County. Mr. Duncan says the county council chose to act instead of waiting for the national government because it was clear undocumented workers needed help.

“What we were seeing were people in our community who had children in our schools, who weren’t able to rent apartments, weren’t able to buy homes, weren’t able to open bank accounts because they didn’t have the proper identification,” he says.

“And what it led to were people carrying large amounts of cash with them or leaving it wherever they lived and they were subject to robberies, subject to some real dangers there,” he says. “So it’s a safety issue, and it’s a financial issue as well where a lot of the check cashing stores in the county charge exorbitant rates because a lot of the people who come to them can’t go to banks and other things. So we wanted it as a way to further integrate people into our community and make it safer for them.”

County Executive Duncan expects more states and local communities to adopt similar resolutions.

“What’s interesting to me,” he says, “is that as the national debate about immigration is stalled and seems to be going backwards, you’ve got the local communities that deal with this issue every day making, in effect, policies that are starting to creep across the country. So the local governments are now starting to set national policy because we have to deal with it. We can’t ignore it.”

Observers say American states’ and towns’ decision to act independently of the national government is a good example of American federalism at work. As in the past with issues like tobacco and road safety, they say immigration reform began at the local level may inform decisions at the national level.