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Who's Trying to Cross Our Southern Border? Everyone
Significant challenges remain. According to Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights , the country will have detained more than 200,000 undocumented migrants by year's end. These numbers may well grow. In 1998, when Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, Mexico was flooded with homeless Hondurans who had abandoned their country and headed north. This year Central America was again hit by devastating hurricanes and tropical storms, leaving thousands without homes. Many of these people will likely head north if their lot doesn't improve.
Mexican officials argue that the United States is failing to do its share. Topping their list of complaints is what they see as the double-talk of the Bush administration.
For decades, Mexico's attitude toward transmigration was one of indifference, its southern boundary with Guatemala and Belize jokingly referred to as la frontera olvidada (the forgotten border).
But when the number of Central Americans entering the United States by way of Mexico shot up in the 1980s and '90s, U.S. officials began applying pressure on their Mexican counterparts to do something about it. During Bush's first term, American officials promised Mexico a quid pro quo: If the Mexicans would shut down the migrant route through their country, the United States would improve the status of undocumented Mexicans in the United States.
This promise has been all but forgotten in Washington, but it has turned into a political lightning rod in Mexico. Responding to a law signed by Bush in May tightening immigration controls, Santiago Creel, a presidential candidate and former interior minister in the administration of President Vicente Fox, said that Mexico had received "absolutely nothing" in return for stemming migration from other countries.
Mexican commentators also argue that many of the country's problems stem from U.S. policies. If the United States didn't give so much work to undocumented immigrants, goes the argument, then Mexico wouldn't be flooded with migrants from across the globe. Says Father Vladimiro Valdez, a Jesuit priest in Mexico City and outspoken critic of both Mexican and U.S. immigration policies: "The fact is, the United States needs illegal workers, and it needs them to remain illegal because then they can continue to keep their wages low."
The politics of free trade, say critics like Valdez, have done little to improve the situation of the poor. Some claim that NAFTA has become a tool used by the United States to drive poor Mexican farmers off the land, thereby producing a steady stream of cheap labor for U.S. agribusiness.
Regardless of whether one agrees, it seems clear that one of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement's key selling points -- that it would create enough jobs in Mexico to stem migration flows -- has proven woefully off mark. Since the agreement went into effect in 1994, the number of Mexicans who have managed to establish themselves in the United States has nearly tripled, from an average of 277,000 per year during the 1990-95 period to a projected 750,000 this year.
These numbers point to a potential contradiction in Bush's policies, the consequences of which the Mexicans will likely be left to deal with -- hardening borders against migrants while pushing free trade agreements throughout Central and South America that seem bound to exacerbate the problem of migration.
Even when it comes to the little things, like aiding Mexico's effort to return migrants to their home countries, the United States is often uncooperative. Mexico could save thousands of dollars per flight if the United States allowed the flights to go through its territory. However, according to the IOM, the United States typically refuses for fear that migrants from places like China will claim asylum once they land in the United States. (The State Department says such transits were halted in 2003 because of concerns that terrorists could exploit them.) When I asked Hermenegildo Castro, a senior official at the INM, whether Mexico had a problem with U.S. intransigence, he diplomatically demurred: "What we have in Mexico is a reality, and we have to work with that reality." The first step the United States needs to take is to acknowledge that reality, too, and recognize that the problem of transmigration stretches way beyond our borders.
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Michael Flynn is a freelance writer based in Geneva. He received a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism to report on transmigration from Mexico.