The Other Side of the Border

By Andrew Wainer 2-17-2011

Even before the 112th Congress convened in January, we knew that advancing progressive immigration policy would be challenging. With a divided legislature, it will be difficult for either side to make major advances in federal immigration reform over the next two years.

Unfortunately, the last decade of immigration debate also hasn't produce much progress: Border and internal enforcement increased steadily, but there is no evidence that the billions spent on the border have stopped unauthorized immigration flows. Millions of unauthorized workers still in the country remain in limbo, with no agreement for their legal integration into society or the economy.

Given the new political configuration in Congress, how can the immigration policy debate escape this impasse? Devoting more attention to immigration's root causes in Latin America is one way to expand the discussion and perhaps create opportunities for compromise.

Elevating this component of immigration reform is long overdue because the sources of immigration are outside the United States. Until we address the "push" factors in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, that generate millions of workers looking for jobs in the United States, we will simply not be equipped to tackle immigration.

Historically, analysis of the root causes of unauthorized migration has been a low priority among policy makers, but there are recent signs of increased interest. In order to elevate analysis of the principal causes of migration, Bread for the World Institute published a report this month, "Development and Migration in Rural Mexico," that analyzes the sources of migration in rural Mexico.

The report focuses on some of the main causes of unauthorized migration to the United States -- inequality and poverty in Mexico -- and provides ideas and options for U.S. policy makers and the international development community to work with migrant-sending communities in Latin America.

The narrative starts with an analysis of rural Mexico as a major source of unauthorized migration and the lack of action by Mexico and the United States in addressing migration at its source. Specifically, the policy analysis focuses on the State Department's Mérida Initiative -- the $1.8 billion foreign aid package to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean that is targeted almost exclusively on assistance to the region's police and military organizations.

Supporting Mexico's security agencies in their fight against the drug cartels is important, but, strangely, the U.S. foreign aid agenda for the largest migrant-sending nation in the world does not include a substantial program for reducing migration pressures. However, if we truly do wish to stem the flow of immigration into the United States, reduction of migration pressures -- particularly in rural Mexico, where poverty and migration are concentrated -- should be a central U.S. foreign assistance priority.

Though development projects implemented with the explicit goal of reducing migration pressures are rare, one of the few is the For a Just Market project in rural Mexico. This initiative explicitly seeks to reduce poverty and inequality so that would-be migrants are not forced to journey to the United States in order to support their families at home.

Existing projects that work at the nexus of development and migration should be formally evaluated by U.S. and Mexico researchers -- and additional pilot projects should be launched -- so that the international development community can build a compendium of effective practices and project models for reducing migration pressures.

The current domestic stalemate in immigration policy means it is high time for immigration analysts, development experts, and policy makers to pay increased attention to addressing the root causes of immigration policy.

Andrew Wainer is immigration policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute in Washington, D.C.

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