The New Bilateral Relationship and Immigration Reform

The election of Barack Obama has changed the playing field for U.S.-Mexico relations, and especially when it comes to immigration. Immigration didn’t turn out to be the hot topic in the presidential campaigns some people predicted it would be. The right had hoped to use it as a wedge issue to promote its agenda and take out liberals, but with the candidacy of John McCain who had supported immigration reform, and the advent of the economic crisis, the issue didn’t receive much attention in the end. Immigration came up most often in the democratic primaries and both Obama and Hillary Clinton supported a form of legalization, as Obama said, to bring the country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows."

Obama stance on immigration: "the highest priority of his first year as president."

Polls indicated that the economy was the main concern for more than 60% of voters. A survey of Latino voters from the Velasquez Institute showed that only 1.6% chose migratory policy as the most important issue when deciding how to vote—that is, below nearly all other issues. This does not mean that people don’t care about immigration. What it means is that Latinos who voted in historic numbers in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections did not vote according to special interests or identity politics. The 9 million Latinos who voted—67% for Obama—voted according to a set of interests led by the economy, and supported Obama for his promise of job security and employment generation.

This fact is important now when Latino organizations are pressuring Obama’s transition team, pointing out that Latinos guaranteed his victorious election and should be rewarded with immigration reform in the early months of his presidency. Undoubtedly, the Latino vote was decisive in some states like Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. However, there is heavy debate over the timing of presenting a new immigration reform proposal in Congress and what the new Cabinet’s first priorities should be. Although Democrats have majority control in both houses of Congress, they cannot overcome a Republican blockade in the Senate, and do not want to further polarize the political climate.

On the other hand, Obama is committed to forge ahead with fair reform and some believe it would be best to follow through within the first few months so that new Latino citizens can incorporate themselves fully into American politics and before the right can do anything to stop it.

Meanwhile, anti-immigrant organizations have completely changed their strategy. Instead of lamenting Obama’s victory, an "amnesty" supporter, they are creating advertising campaigns that focus on the new government’s commitment to generating jobs and protecting workers’ rights and insist that no talks should take place about legalizing the 7 million undocumented workers because it would mean 7 million fewer jobs for Americans.

To face this argument—which could be very strong for workers who feel the insecurity caused by the crisis—recognize Latino voter’s concerns, and address immigration in its bilateral aspects, it’s important to develop a proposal for reform based not so much on the political demands of a group in particular, but on building a just economy and society and defending labor rights for all.

What to Expect of Obama’s Government on Immigration?

Obama’s position on immigration reform has been consistent, although not very detailed. He talks about the issue in his Latin America platform. That, in itself, represents a breakthrough because almost no politician to date has considered immigration a matter of international relations. In the United States it has always been treated as a domestic affair under the heading of national security or control of the borders. This has been very frustrating to the Mexican government.

The Obama platform refers to comprehensive immigration reform as "the highest priority of his first year as president." His proposal includes a path to citizenship, a commitment to fix the dysfunctional bureaucracy, as well as obligatory references to a secure border. He does not show great enthusiasm for the guest-worker programs, saying that workers should have "greater security as workers and that none should be deprived of becoming Americans in the future." He seems to understand the link between economic policies toward Mexico and immigration, noting that it is necessary to "encourage job creation and economic development so that the migration momentum is reduced."

Obama came out in favor of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada: "The purpose is to analyze the aspects that require adjustments where they are causing economic, labor, or other types of problems in the societies" of each of the three countries, he stated.

According to his adviser, Dan Restrepo, in an interview with Proceso , "Obama wants to change the [immigration] debate’s atmosphere, which had been rarefied and handled by extremists; he wants to change the tone so that a true debate exists on serious immigration reform."

Calderon and the National Situation

On the other hand, within multiple forums, Felipe Calderon has insisted lately that his priority with Obama’s new government is to avoid a renegotiation of NAFTA. Obama said during his campaign that he would contact Calderon and Harper for this purpose.

Recently, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Lima, Peru, President Calderon said: "Renegotiating NAFTA is a very bad idea," and considered it "neo-protectionism." He ended by saying, "Their purpose is not to renegotiate so that there is more business and commerce, but less business and less commerce … Mexico would lose opportunities, and issues that greatly concern Americans, such as [the case of] immigration, would be even worse if opportunities for access of Mexican products to the United States market were closed … and the immigrants are going to get across the river, or the fence, or any barrier—that is a fact."

It is irresponsible to use Mexican immigration to the United States as a threat in the current political context. U.S. racist and restriction forces are coordinating a new campaign to blame the immigrants—including the legal ones—for exacerbating unemployment in the current economic crisis. Calderon’s veiled threat gives them fodder for the fire of the anti-immigrant movement.

In addition, the cause and effect relationship is false. First of all, the proposals for the renegotiation that arise from civil society in the three countries have nothing to do with protectionism. In Canada, they request control over natural resources (an end to the proportionality clause) and to diminish the supranational privileges of the investors established by the treaty. Obama’s proposals are public: he asks to incorporate labor and environmental principles in the agreement’s text (right to unionization and environmental protection), and to change the agreement so that the laws to protect the three countries’ citizens cannot be altered by foreign investors.

The only measure that has to do with commerce is the Mexican appeal of hundreds of thousands of farmers to remove corn and beans from the agreement. This plea arises precisely because under the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) what has happened in Mexico is exactly the opposite of what Calderon sustains—rather than being a net source of jobs, the treaty has displaced some two million farmers, as well as small merchants that used to produce for the national market before massive imports were brought on by the FTA.

These people end up migrating in large numbers. The relationship between the FTA model and unemployment and displacement is well documented.

What exactly does Calderon support then? In the meeting with Calderon on Jan. 12, Obama reiterated his commitment to renegotiate NAFTA and Calderon was forced to back down on his opposition to any possibility of renegotiation. However, he continues to support the orthodox neoliberal economic model that has become indefensible within the context of the crisis. He now calls for minor modifications without "re-opening the treaty." He knows that by defending the economic model in the midst of a deepening economic crisis in Mexico and massive job loss, he is rowing against the current.

It is not only the economic crisis that has left staunch neoliberals standing alone these days. Obama’s victory has isolated Calderon in the continent. Conservative Republican candidate John McCain visited only two heads of state in Latin America—Alvaro Uribe and Felipe Calderon. Uribe openly campaigned for McCain, while Calderon supported him (a violation of protocol) openly but more discreetly. Obama almost certainly has not forgotten that.

President Obama has declared that his priority is to repair relations with center-left countries. Calderon will not be able to count on the ideological support he had with Bush or the shared belief that what is good for large corporations is good for the two nations. What he has left is the support of the military.

Plan Mexico and the Bilateral Relationship

In the previous year, what has dominated the bilateral agenda has been the war on drugs and Plan Mexico. Plan Mexico, officially called the Merida Initiative, is a military and police aid package of which $400 million dollars has been approved for Mexico in 2008 and similar quantities are foreseen until at least 2010.

Plan Mexico arose from the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) and meets the objectives of the Bush-Cheney administration to extend the security perimeter of the United States to Mexico’s southern border; that is, to have Mexico adopt the national security agenda of the United States and implement the Bush counter-terrorism and unilateralist paradigms. What many do not know is that the Plan implies much more than a temporary assistance program to fight the drug cartels. It structurally transforms the bilateral relationship by permanently emphasizing military aspects over much-needed development aid and modification of investment and commerce policies.

The Plan imposes on Mexico the same failed border security, drug war, counter-terrorism, and economic integration policies that led to the massive repudiation of George W. Bush’s administration and earned him the scorn of the rest of the planet and the majority of the U.S. population. The initiative, focused on anti-terrorism, anti-narcotics, and border security efforts, intensifies the border conflict by viewing immigration through the same militarized lens with which terrorism and organized crime are viewed.

When speaking of fighting the "flow of illegal goods and aliens," the initiative equates immigrant workers with illegal contraband and terrorist threats. This ignores the root causes of Mexican immigration and criminalizes it.

The millions of dollars allocated to the National Migration Institute are poured into increasing restrictions on Mexico’s southern border through means such as monitoring, collecting biometric data, and a program for border control and guest workers, especially Guatemalans. Historically, Mexico has offered refuge to Central Americans, accepting them into its society. That attitude has been changing as the U.S. government pressures Mexico to intercept Central American migrants before they can reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

Plan Mexico accelerates this process and increases Mexican participation in detaining its own migrants on its northern border. To put immigration and the threat of international terrorism (almost non-existent in Mexico) in the same category has already served to promote the U.S. government’s strategy of militarizing the border with Mexico.

Calderon’s weak government has attempted to gain strength by leaning on the armed forces and the war model of confronting illegal drug trafficking. The strategy for compensating its lack of legitimacy at the polls with a tough-guy image on drugs is conveniently reinforced by Plan Mexico. Historically the drug war model suppresses dissent, militarizes society, and concentrates presidential powers.

Obama has said that he supports Plan Mexico. Nevertheless, three indicators for change do exist: 1) he has said that due to the crisis, promised levels of international aid will need to decrease, and need to be revised; 2) he recognizes the responsibility of the United States in illicit drug use, arms trafficking, and money laundering, and the need to implement new domestic policies in this area; and 3) he is considering new models to combat illegal drug trafficking and use that go beyond the exclusive focus on supply reduction and interdiction.

If Plan Mexico is not suspended immediately, the two most integrated nations in the world will enter into a phase in which the bilateral relationship is directed by the Pentagon, Mexican society becomes increasingly militarized, and the unbridled power of already abusive Mexican security forces not only does not solve the alarming violence of organized crime, but aggravates it.

Job creation programs, local infrastructure development, and measures aimed at regulating migratory flows and preventing conflicts would go a lot farther in obtaining and enhancing security in the short and the long run.

A New Bilateral Agenda

The current situation offers the opportunity to work toward a much more integrated and healthy bilateral agenda. Obama’s emphasis on domestic policy to reactivate the economy inevitably must include a rethinking of the relationship with Mexico due to the high degree of integration. This explains his insistence on NAFTA renegotiation. U.S. media has frequently pointed out the similarities with the Franklin Roosevelt era. When FDR developed the New Deal to cope with the Great Depression, he did not abandon external relations. Instead he constructed the Good Neighbor policy based on many of the same principles of solidarity that the New Deal relied on. In the Depression era, the lack of resources due to the economic crisis supported the new policy of non-intervention in foreign affairs.

A bilateral agenda should be developed based on the shared priorities of work with dignity and peaceful societies.

Work with Dignity Should be Understood as the Following:

  • Legalization for qualified undocumented workers in the United States, to eliminate the labor black market, and guarantee full rights to all.
  • Immigration reform focused on reuniting workers with their families, because no human being should be reduced to his or her labor power.
  • Trade policies that recognize the right to work with dignity in the place of origin.

The Peaceful Societies Agenda Should Establish That:

  • A healthy society should be based not on the effectiveness of its police/military control, but on its capacity to offer the opportunity to create well-being to all of its members.
  • The bilateral relationship should be horizontal, coherent, and based on mutual respect.
  • The border is a point of convergence, not a wall of contention.

The debate on the new bilateral relationship is not a matter of sitting down and waiting to see what Obama will do, or how the crisis will evolve. It is time for citizens to work hard to forge new citizen-based national and regional policies.