Editor’s Note: Jorge G. Castañeda was Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. He is a professor at New York University. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last week’s virtual summit meeting between President Biden and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico was uninspiring, or at least the speeches were. Far more interesting was what the Mexican and American teams discussed before the presidents met.
First was a request by López Obrador, who is known as AMLO, for emergency shipments of American vaccines. The day before the summit, the White House essentially said no for now. (“We’re going to talk about that,” Biden offered, without commitment, afterward).
Then, on the eve of the event, AMLO announced that he would submit an immigration proposal to the American side, modeled on the Bracero program, which sent millions of Mexican men to work on American farms from World War II until 1964. We don’t know exactly what response he got, except for a vague comment from the White House that immigration issues had to go through Congress.
This exchange goes to something central in the relationship between the two countries. The immigration agreement that AMLO has said he would propose involves 600,000 to 800,000 temporary workers per year, although it remains unclear if this would be a total number or an increase over the existing number.
Indeed, AMLO’s suggestion complements Biden’s plan for legalizing undocumented workers in the US. The White House presented a bill, the Citizenship Act of 2021, seeking to legalize unauthorized foreigners in the United States, as well as so-called Dreamers and individuals under Temporary Protected Status.
Together with AMLO’s initiative, the two proposals are almost identical to the old immigration deal that Presidents Vicente Fox and George W. Bush worked on in 2001 and 2002, and which fell by the wayside after 9/11. They all resemble the bills that Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy attempted to pass as comprehensive immigration reform, in 2006, followed by other refashioned and failed tries in 2007 and 2013, by Bush again and later by President Barack Obama.
The two ideas must go together. Addressing only one side of the immigration conundrum – that is, the roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants in the US today – without also dealing with the “flow” side, the nearly 300,000 unauthorized migrants who enter the United States every year, will neither fix the matter substantively nor be viable politically.
Here is why. Legalizing everyone without papers in the United States, whether overnight or gradually, and placing those who so wish on a path to citizenship, will not deter new unauthorized flows from Mexico and Central America.
The current and future effects of climate change, the pandemic and tanking economies will continue to hit the sending countries. The day after the President signs the bill, nearly 1,000 people will succeed in crossing the border without authorization; nearly 3,000 were apprehended daily in January and February of this year.
With or without papers, they will find work in the United States. That is why they migrate. Over time, a new universe of “illegals,” as Republicans like to call them, would rapidly be formed. The only way to deter undocumented entries is to … document them. Bring them in as temporary workers, with H2a or H2b visas, with a path to permanent residence in the future.
In 2019, 570,000 temporary agricultural and service workers were admitted, mostly from Mexico, less than 0.2% of the population. The United States can absorb these and many more.
Conversely, if AMLO’s plan were to be accepted without Biden’s, it would not redress the terrible situation the unauthorized universe finds itself in. Newer tensions would arise between a greater number of temporary legal migrants and long-standing nonlegal ones in the United States. Even President Bush was forced to accept an amnesty equivalent in his proposals; when presented with other wording to voters, polls show majorities of Americans in favor.
The second reason why the two plans must be melded into one is political. Democrats will never accept more temporary workers without the legalization of unauthorized foreigners. Republicans will not countenance any type of amnesty if growers, developers, landscapers and the health care industry are not placated by a significantly larger number of legal, low-wage, low-skill workers.
Get our free weekly newsletter
For Democrats, opposition by the Catholic Church, labor unions and Latino groups to anything smacking of the old Bracero agreement means that without something in return – amnesty – they cannot accept any legal increase of future flows. For Republicans, amnesty is unthinkable, unless their funders and constituents are made happy with more “cheap labor.”
It is hard to say for now if Biden’s Citizenship Act will ever pass. It is equally difficult to determine whether AMLO’s offer will ever be accepted by the Americans, and whether it can get through Congress, although the President can raise the cap on H2a visas on his own, and can find ways to increase the number of H2b permits without Congress.
In theory, Biden would need 60 votes in the Senate; he doesn’t have them. But he can either persuade 10 Republican senators (not easy), or use the budget reconciliation procedure (also complicated), or develop a piecemeal approach – an unattractive choice, but the most viable one, for now.
These obstacles show why so many attempts at immigration reform – or an immigration agreement with Mexico and Central America – have floundered over the years. But they also suggest that the only road to success lies in following this joint path with Mexico. If this occurs, the otherwise bland summit will have been well worthwhile.