MEXICO CITY — Immigration has been on the United States-Mexico agenda for years. In recent times, three American attempts at comprehensive immigration reform, which included amnesty for undocumented Mexicans in the United States and a temporary-worker visa program, have failed. A bilateral effort between 2001 and 2003 also collapsed.
Nothing affects Mexico more than United States immigration policy, and the centrality of the issue in American politics is more prominent than ever.
The most urgent challenge is to find a way forward for the so-called Dreamers, the beneficiaries of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Nearly 800,000 young people brought to the United States by their parents as children applied for and were given protected status by the Obama administration. Thanks to DACA, they no longer needed to fear deportation, were able to work legally and had realistic hopes that one day they would be on a path to citizenship in the only country they knew. More than three-fourths of the Dreamers are Mexican. That’s why people here follow their fate closely.
President Trump rescinded Mr. Obama’s DACA policy. He has proposed a four-pillar overhaul of American immigration policy that most Democrats and Latinos in the United States detest. Strangely enough, however, it might benefit Mexico, especially if it is accompanied by additional changes in the issuance of temporary-worker visas, and in particular those known as H-2A and H-2B.
The first pillar of Mr. Trump’s proposal — regularizing the status of the Dreamers and a million other young people who also could qualify for DACA status with a long and winding road to citizenship — works to Mexico’s advantage. Somewhere near 1.5 million of these young people are Mexican; that is roughly one-quarter of all undocumented Mexican citizens in the United States. Granting them the equivalent of amnesty, with the beacon of eventual citizenship, satisfies one of Mexico’s most crucial immigration demands.
The second pillar — $25 billion for a border wall — is obviously offensive to Mexico, but the country’s lame-duck president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has been much more adamant in his opposition to paying for the wall than to its actual construction. Mr. Peña Nieto either doesn’t believe it will ever see the light of day or lacks the backbone to oppose it. But Mr. Trump’s wall is something Mexico can simultaneously reject and live with, particularly if it will take years to build and if it merely complements segments of fences erected by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
Mr. Trump’s third pillar is the most insulting for many Americans, since it eliminates the family reunification principle for accepting legal immigrants from abroad. Intended to deter “chain migration,” it would replace the family criterion with a merit-based system. In the future, only spouses and underage offspring (as opposed to parents and siblings today) of American citizens would be allowed permanent residence, and eventually citizenship. The net effect would be to “whiten” immigration and limit the share of Mexicans.
Since the largest group of foreigners applying for family reunification is by far Mexican (three times as many as Chinese citizens, for example), this would reduce the number of applicants from Mexico who get green cards. Nearly 200,000 Mexicans got green cards in fiscal year 2016; halving that number through a lengthy and tedious procedure that frustrates many Mexicans would not be as bad as shutting down the whole program.
The last pillar would suppress the lottery system that grants a small number of immigrant visas to applicants from underrepresented nations, mainly African. Again, this would surely “whiten” immigration and is thus a despicable proposal, but it does not affect Mexico. There is no lottery system for Mexicans.
So, viewed somewhat cynically from the perspective of strict Mexican national interests, the four-pillar plan has inconveniences for Mexico but also many advantages. That it is racist as well as unworthy of the American immigration ideal and inflames the worst demons in American society is another matter. As Mr. Trump says, countries have to look out for their own interests.
To make this plan attractive to Mexico, its leaders need to persuade the American president to increase the number of temporary-worker visas. Again, by far the largest number of these permits are extended to Mexicans. H-2A visas, for seasonal agricultural workers, have no congressional cap; H-2B visas, for seasonal nonagricultural activities, do, but it can be lifted and has been for several years. The Trump administration can increase these numbers significantly without congressional approval.
An immense reconstruction effort is underway in Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and, with virtual full employment, there is a huge demand for low-skilled, low-wage labor in those regions. It can come only from Mexico.
Were Mr. Peña Nieto to make such a suggestion and were Mr. Trump to accept it, both countries’ interests would be well served.
In the early years of this century, a comprehensive package like this was called “the whole enchilada.” Half a loaf, or whatever nutritional metaphor one prefers, is not bad.
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