"The Mexican population is already aging rapidly, as fertility and birth rates have been dropping precipitously, and continue to plummet, for over twenty years now. By 2015, regardless of other circumstances, particularly economic ones, the pool of potential immigrants will have shrunk dramatically: only the young emigrate, and those over forty-five, a speedily growing share of Mexico’s inhabitants, do not."
That little gem appears near the middle of Jorge Castañeda's Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants -- his take on the history and the future of Mexican immigration to the United States. As Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000-2003, he was on the front lines of the negotiations between Mexico and the Bush administration concerning immigration reform.
The history is very interesting, and I highly recommend it. Too often our positions on immigration are formed outside of the issue's historical context. Castañeda fills that void. From a Mexican's point of view, of course.
I should point out that the following is a list of rather disjointed thoughts. I have spent the last year trying to develop my own position on the special relationship between Mexico and the United States -- especially, immigration. Consider this a work in progress.
What is often missed is that Mexican migration heading north has a long history. Mexicans would leave home for a season and return home to tend their crops or perhaps a local store until the next trip north, and then head north for another season. The immigration academics give that process a fancy name: "circularity."
Very few Mexicans stayed north. While they were there, Mexican migrants gained the personal and economic admiration of American businessmen and farmers. Economic downturns in The States were the only impediment to the flow. That is, until the 1990s.
The Clinton administration became concerned about the flow -- pressured mainly by labor unions who feared that wages were being depressed (especially in construction jobs). And they probably were. Up went the first of many fences. This one protecting the border around San Diego and further east in California.
Border controls were beefed up, as well. The result was that it became more difficult to get into the United States. And a lot of Mexicans who were part of the circularity flow decided to stay north rather than risk being shut out on the return trip.
Ironically, in a desire to control illegal migration, the United States government created a large class of resident illegal aliens. And that group, of course, is the very core of the current political debate over the "dreamers" and the impossible task of sending people who are in The States illegally back to their country of origin.
I have been following the immigration reform debate in The States quite closely. It was an area of interest for me in law school. My doctoral thesis, if you will, was on immigration law and its reform.
But I had never encountered the 2015 tilting point in the Mexican population. I knew it had to occur. A country that can reduce its birthrate from 7.2 to 2.2 in a couple of decades will inevitably suffer a demographic decline of people who are willing to risk the dangers of getting across the border.
If Mexico has reached that point, the whole "secure the border" debate may be shooting at the wrong target. I was once a big advocate of the "security first" argument -- an argument that the Fox administration helped promote.
But I have put less stock in it when I started asking myself what does it actually mean. A nation that is based on imports and exports and promotes education and tourism visitors will find it impossible to close its borders to the world.
The events of 9-11 have made my countrymen very fearful of another similar incident. And we all know it will happen again. It certainly did with the Boston bombers.
Wouldn't it be interesting if allowing some form of circularity would actually resolve the problem of illegal immigration? What if the border was opened and nobody came?
Illegal immigration dropped off precipitously during the late 2000s. Most people blamed the recession and the expanded border controls. But what if Mexicans were not coming because the pool of potential crossers had dwindled?
I have always been an advocate of freer economic movement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. For various reasons, NAFTA did not include clauses for the free movement of labor (in the same way that NAFTA allowed the free movement of capital) or the free movement of energy (even though the Mexican government was willing to entertain the idea if an immigration clause could be negotiated).
Time killed both options. Governments in each of the three countries knew the proposed NAFTA treaty would be politically problematic without immigration and energy being included. With those two clauses included, the treaty would not have been enacted -- in all likelihood.
One of the big rubs for the United States was the danger of depressing wages.
During my freshman year in college, I took a US History course from Dr. Whitney K. Bates. On the first day of the class, he asked the students if they considered themselves in the wealthy class. No hands went up. The middle class? All hands, but one, went up. The poor class? One hand shot. (It belonged to a fellow named Richard who would become a good friend in college. A true radical, he ignored the fact that his family was probably the wealthiest in the class.)
I relate that anecdote to underline a point. Almost all Americans consider themselves to be in the middle class. Even the working poor (who would easily be middle class in almost any other country except The States). That is why illegal immigration is such a time bomb amongst the lower middle class.
A lot of the people in that income group are working very hard to better themselves and their families by working at jobs that do not pay high wages. A high proportion of legal immigrants fall into this group. They are just starting to work their way up the greasy economic pole.
There are enough economic studies to assert that the group hurt most by high levels of illegal immigration are the very people who immigrated through legal means. It is a rather cruel reality.
That point has kept me from being an advocate for increasing the pool of workers that will undermine new immigrants. Of course, the United States will need immigrants if its economy is to expand. Native Americans are producing children only at a replacement level.
I do not have an answer to the ever-building layers of contradictions that arise when immigration is discussed. Interestingly, none of the questions now under consideration are new. The Bush and Fox administrations listed each of them. And they thought they had an answer in the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform package in 2006. They didn't.
Maybe if everyone started with the assumption that the pressure for illegal immigration from Mexico has diminished, the politicians could actually come up with a reform package on which they agree. But listening to the current presidential candidates from either party does not give me much hope.
Hope. It is a rather rare commodity in Washington these days.