A Watershed in the U.S.-Mexico Migration Debate

Closing the Borders

Mexico Immigration
Members of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform protest outside the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, California, in anticipation of the March 22, 2001 arrival of Mexican President Vicente Fox (Photo: AFP).

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.

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 security—and 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 Sept. 11.

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 visas—impossible to counterfeit, valid for 10 years each—had 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 areaThere 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.

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 California’s Proposition 187 [which denies public social services, health care, and public education to people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants—WPR].

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.

After 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.

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