Three ways U.S. immigration reform might impact Mexico

January 31, 2013

Now that President Obama and the Senate have put together plans for comprehensive immigration reform, it seems like something might finally be done about this thorny issue. Of the 11 million estimated illegal immigrants in the United States, some 7 million are from Mexico, so any U.S. legislation would have huge impacts there.

Here's a look at some of them:


AP/Gregory Bull

Possibly more remittances

About 12 million Mexicans — 15 percent of Mexico’s labor force — reside legally and illegally in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Remittances sent by Mexicans from the United States have grown from $3.7 billion in 1995 to a peak of $25 billion in 2007, as The Washington Post reported in 2012. The $25 billion figure makes up about 3 percent of Mexico's GDP.

Past studies have found that legalization programs would increase immigrant wages by about 20 percent, largely because more immigrants would switch into higher-paying occupations if their status were normalized.

So conceivably, these higher-paid immigrants could increase the amount they send home, thus boosting the economy there.

Likely fewer illegal crossing attempts

Border patrol apprehensions are currently at a 40-year low, at roughly 340,000 per year. The question is, will a pathway to citizenship spur more people to try to cross illegally?

It's too early to tell, but we can look to past examples for possible scenarios. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) ushered in a wave of monumental changes to immigration law, including sanctions on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers, increased border enforcement and an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants already in the country who met certain provisions. Approximately 3 million undocumented workers, including 2.3 million Mexicans, were granted legal permanent resident status under IRCA.

A 2011 study in the journal "Public Purpose" found that the amnesty program was associated with a decline in the number of border apprehensions, even when controlling for factors like the economic conditions in Mexico, the level of border enforcement and seasonal fluctuations.

Of course, apprehensions aren't a perfect proxy for the flow of illegal immigrants — people might simply be crossing and not getting caught — but it does show that amnesty alone won't necessarily cause a giant wave of immigrants to flock across the border.

Furthermore, net immigration out of Mexico dropped to zero last year, according to a Pew Research Hispanic Center study from last year, in part because Mexico's economy is getting better while America's continues to be a little touch-and-go. So illegal immigration isn't a huge ongoing problem right now, and under immigration reform that should continue to be the case.

More and better migrant labor

As we wrote last month, Mexico would like very much for the United States to create an expanded and more orderly guest worker program, kind of like Canada's. In theory, many of the workers who now cross illegally or work in the U.S. illegally would become legal workers and wage earners. This would have clear benefits for Mexico in improving border security, wages and probably remittances, while forcing laborers to return to Mexico seasonally. The difficulty in crossing the border now means that many illegal migrants only return home to see their families every few years, if that.

Oh, and the U.S. desperately needs more farm workers.

However, it's unclear whether the final immigration reform legislation will contain a guest worker program, since the Senate version of the framework seems to create such a program  but Obama's doesn't.

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Max Fisher · January 31, 2013