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April 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 4)
Watershed in the U.S.-Mexico Migration Debate
Closing the Borders
Verea, Voices of Mexico (quarterly journal), Mexico City,
Mexico, January-March 2002
Since Sept. 11,
Americans have been forcefully awakened to an awareness of their
immense vulnerability. And today they are questioning the effectiveness
of their national security. The effects of this unrest could
be felt only weeks after the terrorist attacks: Their borders
were immediately militarized to control their now-fragile national
security, and they are now carrying out investigations to block
the entry of new terrorists.
Members of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform
protest outside the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City
City, California, in anticipation of the March 22, 2001
arrival of Mexican President Vicente Fox (Photo: AFP).
Since five of the 19 hijackers entered the United States through
the long and little-guarded border with Canada, attitudes have
changed. While the southern U.S. border is super-militarized,
patrolled by 9,000 guards to cover 41 ports of entry, the northern
border (3,987 miles long, with 115 ports of entry) is patrolled
by only 340 officers. Now the government has decided to reinforce
surveillance there and has authorized the transfer of 100 agents
from the southern to the northern border.
There has even been a proposal to establish a North American
perimeter to harmonize migratory policies, border security,
and customs norms between the United States and Canada. For
its part, the [Jean] Chrétien administration fears that
this proposal implies extraordinary cooperation in the European
style. That is, to come into one of the Schengen Area
countries, it is necessary to present a passport, but once inside,
the visitor may cross borders as she needs to.
Until Sept. 11, the U.S. debate about migratory reforms centered
on the impact of immigrants on the economy, particularly of
unemployed and unschooled workers in the agricultural and service
sectors that employ temporary immigrants whether documented
or not. There was also discussion about the impact on the environment,
among other issues, in addition to the airing of the traditional,
recurring xenophobic arguments expressed by some individuals
and sectors of U.S. society. After Sept. 11, the debate shifted
to the need to control the borders as a measure of national
securityand to ensure that fewer immigrants enter. Unfortunately,
the trend toward a more open border between Mexico and the United
States is going to reverse. Residents on both sides of the border
could not have received a worse piece of news as a result of
Today, the scrupulous inspection of goods on the Mexico-U.S.
border has already caused losses in tourism and bilateral trade.
Many Americans who make their living from Mexican consumers
have watched their sales drop more than 60 percent and, in areas
very near to Mexico, up to 90 percent. To temporarily solve
this problem, representatives from different sectors on both
sides of the border have agreed to begin a process to have the
border declared an emergency area; to do that they
solicited tax breaks and immediate loans from the governments
of both Mexico and the United States.
The situation was worsened by the fact that it coincided with
the time limit for replacing the mica, or border area visa,
with new laser visas at the cost of US$45 each, which has hindered
even more the traditionally large flow of people into the region.
The State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) began the process of renovating the visas in 1998,
and by January 2001 almost 4 million laser visasimpossible
to counterfeit, valid for 10 years eachhad been approved.
Since a similar number of border passes are still left to be
renewed, members of both houses of the U.S. Congress have introduced
a bill to extend the time limit until October 2002 to alleviate
tensions in the area.
There is no doubt that Mexicans who live in the United States
will suffer as a result. They will now perhaps be seen as suspicious
and dangerous and not just as people looking for work. It is
to be expected that the already heavy border surveillance will
increase and focus not only on the hunt for terrorists, but
for undocumented migrants, drug traffickers, etc.
Sept. 11, U.S. immigration policy-making became inextricably
linked with the issue of terrorism. And voices once sidelined
as nativist or racist now surface in the mainstream debate
on national security.
I am convinced that the U.S. debate on immigration will be linked
from now on to the issue of terrorism. An important segment
of the U.S. public, which in recent years had flirted with the
idea of opening up the borders to more immigrants, has changed
its mind today. Recent polls show that this sector of the public
now feels it lacks control over its borders; it thinks that
terrorists have easily entered into the United States and that,
therefore, more severe border controls are needed, along with
a profound reform of immigration laws.
This makes it possible for conservative and extremist voices
to resurface, the voices we heard at the beginning of the 1990s
with xenophobic attitudes, and for these opinions to be translated
into local and national measures in the tradition of Californias
Proposition 187 [which denies public social services, health
care, and public education to people who are suspected of being
A few months ago, President Bush was open to the possibility
of establishing a guest-workers program and the normalization
of the status of undocumented Mexican migrants. But his priorities
seem to have changed drastically since then: He has asked Congress
to review immigration policy in order to put in place the mechanisms
he needs to fight terrorism. He intends to restrict and review
the assignation of temporary visas issued annually; to do that
he recently created the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force.
He also gave orders for this group, together with the Mexican
and Canadian governments, to coordinate the necessary preventative
measures to hinder the possible entry of suspected terrorists.
He has even issued instructions to limit the entry of members
of 46 terrorist groups scattered around the world. He has also
proposed working jointly to share databases in order to speed
up the detection of possible foreign terrorists.
The U.S. Congress will have to find a balance between restrictive
measures to reduce and control immigration and permissive measures
to allow for the entry of new immigrants, with a border semi-open
to workers at the same time that they implement more effective
security measures and greater border controls. Meanwhile, the
two houses of Congress are discussing bills to implement the
following measures, all highly restrictive: Reinforce national
security, mainly on land borders, increasing the number of border
patrols; use the National Guard to reinforce the border and/or
militarily train the border patrol; declare a moratorium on
the entry of immigrants and/or substantially reduce the number
admitted annually; computerize visa records for tourists and
students through a database; issue a standard identification
card or intelligent card for foreigners who enter
the United States; set up an automated system that will facilitate
the deportation of immigrant criminals; and restrict the admission
of students and prohibit the entry of people from the seven
countries that, according to the United States, support terrorism.
Meanwhile, liberal Congresspersons who have traditionally defended
open-door immigration policies face a hostile environment. They
are having difficulty getting bills discussed, such as the amnesty
program for undocumented immigrants (a bill many consider dead
because it threatens national security), and the approval of
the guest-workers program proposed by Mexico. Despite the heated
debate, little by little, the members of Congress will realize
that they will have to draw a line between immigrants who come
to the United States seeking work and those who use their temporary
visas to carry out terrorist acts.
Mónica Verea is a researcher and the founder and former
director of CISAN (Centro de Investigaciones sobre América
del Norte) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de
México, which publishes Voices of Mexico. This
article was excerpted from a longer version. Contact her at