U.S.-Mexican Relations

U.S. Supreme Court Decision Creates Apprehension in Mexico

The rights of Mexican migrant workers in the United States, such as these pictured in Chicago, is an important issue for many Mexicans (Photo: AFP).   

The way Mexican undocumented migrant workers are treated in the United States is a sensitive topic for most Mexicans. Perhaps it’s because most everyone has a friend or relative who works in the neighboring country. So the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling denying an undocumented Mexican worker the right to back pay after being unlawfully fired has provoked strong reactions in Mexico.

On March 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Hoffman Plastic Compound company, overturning an earlier decision by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. The Board had ordered the company to pay Mexican migrant worker Juan Castro a total of US$66,000 in back pay and rehire him, after having fired him a decade earlier after his support for a union-organizing campaign at the plant where he was working drew the company’s attention. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who delivered the opinion of the court, concluded "that allowing the Board to award back pay to illegal aliens would unduly trench upon explicit statutory prohibitions critical to federal immigration policy."

Oscar Alzaga, of Mexico’s National Association of Democratic Lawyers, says the U.S. Supreme Court ruling denies one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to all workers by U.S. federal labor law: the right to organize. In an April 12 interview, he warned that the ruling is extremely worrisome, since the same treatment may now be applied to the rest of the estimated 6 million undocumented workers in the United States, half of whom are from Mexico. He added that the decision should also worry U.S. workers, since "when basic rights are denied to some workers, the rights of all workers are in danger."

The ruling could actually encourage companies to hire more undocumented workers, after seeing that it will be easy to fire them without risk of legal or monetary consequences. Claudia Smith of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation told Mexico City’s left-wing La Jornada on April 3 that "it’s still common in some places that the day before payday, employers call the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to have their workers arrested." She warns that "with this measure, such a practice could become widespread."

The closely-divided Supreme Court decision (five in favor, four against) reveals that "violating the country’s immigration laws is viewed more seriously that denying the rights of a worker who was unlawfully fired," Sergio Muñoz Bata wrote in Mexico City’s independent Reforma (April 5), calling the ruling an "enormous injustice."

Harsher words were used by Jorge A. Bustamante in his column in the April 1 edition of Milenio. According to Bustamante, the ruling reduces the already limited possibilities for undocumented workers to defend themselves against the abuses of U.S. employers—to the point that such workers now face conditions "that have never been so close to de facto slavery." Bustamante sees the court’s decision as an unjustified attack on undocumented workers, considering that the U.S. Department of Labor acknowledged in a 1994 research report that agricultural production in California—which accounts for a third of U.S. agricultural production overall—is made possible by a labor force that is 85 percent Mexican, 60 percent of whom are undocumented migrant workers.

Consequences unclear

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow said in an April 8 press conference that reactions in the Mexican press were based on a misinterpretation of the ruling. "The impression generated in the Mexican press that migrant workers have lost their rights in the United States is not correct," he told La Jornada, adding that the ruling "doesn’t take away a worker’s labor rights in the United States, whether undocumented or documented, whether a citizen or not."

But concern over the ruling is not limited to Mexico. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was quoted by La Jornada’s U.S. correspondents (April 13) as saying that his organization is profoundly disappointed. At a press conference on April 11, the largest U.S. labor federation joined other labor, migrant and Latino groups in calling for a sweeping reform of U.S. migration laws.

Demand for action

In Mexico, many are calling for a forceful response from the Mexican government. Agustín Gutiérrez Canet, Director of International Studies at the Iberoamerican University, criticized President Vicente Fox’s administration for its initial "timid" response, which consisted of only a "low-level" communiqué issued by the Mexican embassy in Washington. In an April 2 opinion piece for Mexico City’s conservative El Universal, he argued that the ruling makes it clear "the United States is not ready to negotiate a migration agreement with Mexico" to allow for the regularization of migrant workers. And he charged the Fox administration with giving in to U.S. pressures to create an "intelligent border" without demanding anything in return.

Jorge Santibáñez Romellón, the president of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a university on the Mexico-U.S. border, took a more moderate tone in an April 8 opinion piece for La Jornada: "Let’s not fool ourselves. We have a great dependence on and asymmetry with the United States, and though we’re not their subordinates, we really can’t afford to fight with them." But Romellón emphasized that "the Fox administration needs to change its strategy to at least a more dignified, clear and strong defense of migrants."

The Supreme Court ruling clearly violates international conventions on workers’ rights, according to Oscar Alzaga of Mexico’s National Association of Democratic Lawyers. He says formal complaints should be registered with the International Labor Organization, the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and the North American Free Trade Agreement Secretariat. Alzaga says his group is not waiting for the Fox administration to take action, but is rather working to strengthen ties and organize efforts with other concerned groups on both sides of the border.

On April 12, the Fox administration asked the Inter-American Human Rights Court to analyze the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But Mexican commentators say this is not enough. "Let’s remember that the topic of migrants was not even addressed by Presidents Fox and Bush" at the March 18-22 U.N. International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, wrote Ana María Aragonés in La Jornada’s April 13 edition. She described the Monterrey conference as "disappointing," with no progress toward a decision by wealthy countries to contribute in a decided way to the development of the poorest countries. As a result, she wrote, migratory flows to development poles will continue to be a reality.

In Mexico, regularizing the status of undocumented Mexican workers in the United States is becoming an increasingly urgent issue, as reflected in an April 12 El Universal editorial, which argued that the U.S. Supreme Court decision "has the potential to create an atmosphere of greater tension in a bilateral relationship that is already complex by definition, because of its characterizing asymmetries."