Bad Blood on the Border

House Bill 4437, also known as the Sensenbrenner bill after its sponsor, was passed in the lower house last December. The bill calls for making illegal entry into the United States a felony, building approximately 700 miles of fence to staunch the flow of immigrants, and beefing up border security.

Both the title-"The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Control Act"-and the logic of the law locate immigration squarely within the purview of the war against terrorism. But using an anti-terrorism lens on immigration issues obscures a much different reality.

Seeking Survival

The immigration phenomenon is really a question of labor flows. When the United States, Canada, and Mexico entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) they created an instrument to facilitate the crossborder movement of money and goods but ignored the third ingredient of production: human beings. Many of the transformations of the Mexican economy wrought by NAFTA – including a reduction in subsistence "non-competitive" farming to the tune of two million displaced farmers, the loss of small and medium-sized national industry, and greater inequality in income distribution – have fed the boom in out-migration. High unemployment, or in the case of Mexico, underemployment since the lack of unemployment benefits means everyone does something even if it’s only washing windshields at stoplights, leads increasing numbers to seek gainful employment in the relatively high-wage north.

Their employment in the U.S. economy is a form of outsourcing within national boundaries. They work as a sub-layer of the labor force that earns less, has fewer benefits, and enjoys almost no legal protection under laws that refuse to recognize their very existence.

For better or for worse, the U.S. economy depends on immigrant labor. Just weeks after Martinez was shot, Arizona’s governor announced a proposal to import 25,000 legal day-workers from the neighboring state of Sonora to harvest the state’s winter crops. In addition to agriculture, the services sector throughout the country also harbors a growing dependence on immigrant labor.

Arizona’s emergency measure would seek visa-holding workers willing to return over the border after a day’s work. But lately talk even of guest-worker programs has been drowned out by the rhetoric of hate and fear campaigns against immigrants. Politicians seeking to boost their political careers have offered up anti-immigrant statements that violate the nation’s basic principles. Rep. Tom Tancredo’s claims that immigrants threaten the American way of life provide an ignoble example.

Until a legal solution is found, employers will continue to rely on undocumented labor or face losing, in the case mentioned above, a large part of the $1 billion winter harvest. This solution forged on the margins of legality causes severe social and personal problems, but keeps their labor costs down.

The other half of the reality is that the flow of immigrants shows no signs of abating in the near future. Indeed, the number of men, women, and children willing to risk crossing continues to grow. Mexico’s National Council on Population reports that 2 million Mexicans emigrated during the five years of the Fox administration, most to the United States. Last year alone they pumped $22.2 billion dollars into the sluggish Mexican economy through remittances.

With Mexico’s unemployment at record highs-1.6 million people unemployed, and millions more underemployed-wages below the basic-needs level, millions of youth entering the workforce, and people left homeless by Hurricane Stan in Chiapas and Guatemala, thousands more will seek a better life-or even just survival-in the north.

When Bad Policies Lead to Bad Neighbors

If politics were a hard science, the challenge of developing bi-national immigration and economic policies that worked toward resolving the job shortage in Mexico caused by NAFTA and short-sighted domestic policies and the need for labor in the United States could conceivably be met with success, as both nations sat down to hammer out details of a mutually beneficial form of border regulation. But politics is the realm of the lower passions, where competing special interests, personal ambitions, and popular fears lead to measures that exacerbate rather than resolve the problems. Nowhere is this clearer than in the United States’ immigration policy.

Rather than opening up dialogue on immigration with Mexico, the U.S. unilateral and law enforcement-based approach to border control has eroded a historically delicate binational relationship. The infamous wall proposal, the grassroots Minuteman movements, and a seeming lack of concern for the loss of life on the border has stirred indignation and fed anti-U.S. sentiment in Mexico-already on the rise following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Coming into office in 2001 the administration of President Vicente Fox had high hopes for an immigration reform package that included expanding legal immigration and legalizing Mexican residents already established in the United States. These hopes were dashed after September 11 th . First, the new counterterrorism framework for viewing all kinds of international relations caused a response of closing off the borders to immigration and brought border regulation into the logic and the bureaucracy of homeland security. And second, under the cover of counterterrorism, a reinvigorated rightwing made immigration restriction its cause celebre, to recruit new members and push a conservative and racist view of the United States as a morally superior nation threatened by polluting foreign elements.

As immigration mounts, so do the deaths. The Border Patrol seems to view Martinez’s death as a cautionary tale for other undocumented workers rather than a red flag on its own practices. In statements to the press, the San Diego region boasted that its members are routinely equipped with expanding-bullet weapons. These are more lethal and more painful than conventional firearms, thus explaining how a man shot in the shoulder could be dead two hours later. The use of firearms against migrants is prohibited under binational agreements and the use of expanding bullets has been banned in international pacts.

Over 2,000 migrants have died of dehydration, drowning, or acts of violence over the past five years. The numbers are rising as border policies push people (including an increasing number of women and children) into more dangerous parts of the borderlands, especially the Arizona deserts.

The binational relationship has also suffered, both between governments and in public opinion. Martinez’ death led to yet another diplomatic maelstrom between Bush administration officials and Mexico. The Mexican government began an investigation and sent a diplomatic note to the U.S. government. Even those actions were criticized by Mexican legislators and citizen groups as a "lukewarm" response amid a climate of growing indignation. As violence and drug trafficking on the border threaten to spin out of control, the U.S. focus on hunting migrants undermines cooperation on urgent security issues and diverts needed resources.

Increasingly the United States is viewed as a bad neighbor. The problems between the two nations would be even more obvious if it weren’t for Mexico’s economic dependency on the United States. The close commercial, geographical, and historical relationship should dictate closer relations but U.S. immigration policy is driving a deep wedge between the two nations.

Rebuilding Community-A Good Neighbor Approach to Immigration

None of this makes any sense. It makes no sense for the United States to treat workers as criminals. It makes no sense for Mexico to consider out-migration an acceptable economic strategy. It makes no sense for one of the world’s most commercially open zones to ignore problems of labor flows, shunting them into criminal categories that stigmatize, exploit, and deny their very existence.

Migrations toward the north and south, deep into the heartland of both countries, are common and communities made up of different combinations of long-time U.S. citizens, Mexicans, European immigrants, Asians and Africans, and indigenous people are the norm rather than the exception. The borderlands, in particular, have always been a bicultural region-multicultural taking into account the indigenous peoples whose tribes still span the two countries in some cases. Our current immigration policy not only splits the two nations but has pitted members of the same communities against each other by calling out shameful sub-currents of racism and xenophobia in out culture.

There is a general consensus among pro-immigrant rights organizations on the basics of U.S. immigration reform. These include the need for a path to citizenship for established, employed immigrants in the country who lack documentation-an estimated 11 million of which around 6 million are Mexicans. Opinion divides on whether labor flows should be controlled under an expanded visa program or a guest-worker program, but the former tends to provide for more complete labor rights protection and fairness. Family reunification must be a priority of immigration reform as well since as long as families remain sundered as a result of current immigration policies, there will pressure to reunite whether legally or illegally.

Tom Barry, an immigration analyst with the International Relations Center (IRC), points out that immigration policy must also be linked to reforms in both foreign and domestic economic policies. Although it seems a daunting task, he notes, "A truly comprehensive immigration reform must complement reforms in U.S. foreign policy designed to reduce the ‘push’ factors that contribute to immigration flows to the United States, taking into account that its economic policies abroad currently contribute to the large number of ‘economic refugees’ seeking to enter the country to escape poverty." In addition, he recommends "a domestic policy commitment by government to full employment at livable wages and working conditions." 1

The IRC has developed a Global Good Neighbor Ethic that would submit immigration reform proposals to the test of several basic principles, including tying reforms to broad U.S. national interests in domestic and foreign policy, sustainable development at home and abroad, and avoiding bad neighbor practices that alienate and antagonize populations outside our borders. 2

Politically, it will be nigh impossible to obtain such a comprehensive immigration reform in the present context. However, it is important to move the discussion in this direction and to think in terms of medium- and long-term solutions that respect human rights, national interests, and neighborly international relations. In the meantime, the task before us is to turn back the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and restrictionism and begin to forge a rational policy that balances complex issues of human rights, employment, international relations, and community-building.

1. Barry, Tom. Immigration Reform Discussion Paper,

2. See Global Good Neighbor Ethic for International Relations,


Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program of the International Relations Center, online at A version of this article was published in Connection to the Americas, March/April 2006 issue and the entire piece appeared in For More Information go to IRC Americas Program Immigration Index Photo from