A First Bilateral Effort

Negotiating a Migration Accord

Mexico and the United States announced actions today [June 22] that are intended to reinforce safety along their shared 1,900-mile border in a bid to protect the lives of Mexicans who attempt to enter U.S. territory illegally. Mexico’s Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda said that Washington “for the first time” has included migration matters on its bilateral agenda. This unprecedented accord will be integrated into a broader agreement that is currently being negotiated. The final treaty is expected to include measures granting temporary permits for Mexicans to work in the United States and residency status to undocumented Mexican immigrants already living there.

According to the communiqué presented simultaneously in Mexico City and Washington, D.C., the two governments agreed on urgent measures to prevent incidents such as the deaths on May 14 of undocumented Mexicans in the Arizona desert. They had been abandoned far from any road or town by traffickers and died of exposure.

The United States will review and, if necessary, modify its border-control operations. Mexico, for its part, has committed to launching information campaigns warning would-be emigrants of the risks involved and to helping prevent the entry of undocumented Mexicans into the United States.

The Mexican border police will be provided with nonlethal weapons such as rifles that fire rubber bullets and pepper spray to be used to “dissuade” those who attempt to emigrate to the northern country, said the authorities. The two governments indicated that they would coordinate efforts to attend to the problems that affect border security in order to reduce the risks confronting the migrants, the authorities, and the border communities.

The bilateral agreement also gives highest priority to cracking down on migrant smugglers and the criminal organizations that offer illegal passage into the United States. The smuggling rings charge each person in the thousands of dollars—often paid by family or friends already living there.

An estimated 838 Mexicans cross the border each day in search of greater opportunities in the United States, home to more than 20 million people who were born in Mexico or are the children of Mexicans. Since January, more than 157 people have died in their attempts to enter the United States illegally. The tragedies occur mostly because they have followed less-watched routes, and those are also the most dangerous. The migrants often face extreme heat in the desert, cold in the mountains, or perilous river crossings.

On May 25, after a telephone conversation, President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox announced they would do everything necessary to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. The announcement of the border-security efforts was moved forward, though Castañeda had said that they would be postponed until a broader accord was reached, one that includes “permanent visas for Mexicans, a ‘guest workers’ program, and the legalization of the undocumented who are in the United States today.” This could not be put off any longer, because human safety and lives are at stake, said Enrique Berruga, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister.

But according to the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Mexican research center that studies the migration phenomenon, the United States maintains a police-heavy vision for controlling the immigration of Mexicans, making it impossible to eliminate incidents that end in deaths and to eradicate people-trafficking rings.

Mexico’s National Population Council, a government entity, warned that emigration to the United States would continue even if all possible controls and barriers were installed. The flow of Mexicans northward occurs also because of ties with family members already residing in the United States, says the council. Fox made the suggestion to Bush that the U.S. government should eventually open the border for people wishing to cross into the other country. Bush received the proposal, but reacted with caution.

Despite the different perspectives on the migratory phenomenon, Fox has been the first to get the United States to discuss the matter openly and to try to hammer out a common policy. Migration-related problems prompted several clashes between Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) and U.S. President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), mostly triggered by unilateral actions taken by Washington, migrant deaths, and human-rights violations committed by border police. Now the two countries are working as a team, Fox declared. Both he and Bush have stated that they maintain a close working relationship on the matter.

The negotiations underway about the guest-worker program, meanwhile, have won criticism from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants, an umbrella for 250 NGOs in the United States, said it opposes the temporary work program because it does not offer residency rights and does not provide Social Security benefits for those who cross the border in order to satisfy the U.S. demand for cheap labor.