The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.
Viresh Bhawra (India, 2012-13) is a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow hosted by the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. He is currently serving a professional affiliation with the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies in San Diego, California.
I completed my non-local professional affiliation at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS) at the University of California, San Diego. There I was a visiting scholar studying undocumented immigration from Mexico to the United States. What I liked best about the CCIS was their non-partisan approach (neither ‘pro’ nor ‘anti’ immigration) and their evidence-based research into different aspects of immigration.
Being based in San Diego, most of my study and interactions were U.S.-focused with an emphasis on San Diego. However, to get a balanced picture, I visited Tijuana, Mexico, and met a few experts doing academic research and professional work in this field.
The issue of immigration is viewed largely as an issue of sovereignty. On the U.S. side, the U.S. believes it has the right to decide how many foreigners can enter the U.S. and on what terms. Post 9/11, the dimension of national security has influenced immigration policy to a great extent. Employers’ demand for foreign labor has been another important factor in shaping U.S. policy such as allowing documented immigrants into the country, not allowing undocumented immigrants, and naturalizing undocumented migrants after every three decades or so. Programs such as Bracero and Guest Worker have brought temporary solutions, but indirectly contributed to the continued flow of undocumented immigrants.
On the other hand, experts based in Mexico view it as a type of economic migration driven by market forces of demand and supply. First of all, the U.S. needs labor (‘cheap labor’ to be precise) for jobs which U.S. citizens do not wish to have anyway. Secondly, NAFTA has damaged the Mexican economy because the borders have been open for goods but closed for people. The domestic industries could not withstand international competition with U.S. firms, and subsidies to agriculture were also withdrawn. Consequently, unemployment increased and northward migration was inevitable. Last but not least, Mexicans feel that Mexico is at the receiving end of most unilateral policy decisions of the U.S. because of the asymmetrical power balance between the two countries.
Experts on both sides agree on one point – Fortification of borders on US side has made illegal border crossing more difficult. According to experts based in Mexico, local Mexican smugglers (“coyotes”) have become jobless and have been gradually replaced by international human smugglers. “Coyotes” functioned more through social networks, owed social responsibility, and were more humane in their approach. The international smugglers approach involves the use of mercenaries and they owe no social responsibility. Abuse of immigrants’ human rights has become rampant due to the involvement of international human smuggling groups.
A tour of a portion of the San Diego sector of the border provided me first-hand exposure to the efforts made through the fencing of the border and its patrolling. Two layers of fencing could be seen throughout and triple layering at few points. The border fencing reminded me of the fencing (of much lower cost) at the India-Bangladesh border which was erected to check undocumented migration. Border fencing and the border patrol in San Diego have been extremely effective and illegal border crossings have become very difficult. Of course, it has come at enormous costs. The levels of success in other states may not be as high because of the difficult terrain, notably in Texas and Arizona.
Overall, this affiliation was a great learning experience about how a nation prioritizes an issue, comes up with strategies to address it, makes adequate resources (financial, human, material) available, and goes all out in its efforts, despite the inherent limitations in controlling economic migration and the pressing domestic demand for foreign labor.
The different approaches of the two countries to the problem can be summarized from one simple observation: it takes about five minutes to enter Mexico from the U.S., and it takes 2-5 hours to enter the U.S. from Mexico.